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2021 Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: #1 Nick Suzuki

SB Nation logo SB Nation 9/22/2021 Matt Drake
a baseball player holding a bat on a field © Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

A development that should come as no surprise to those following this series, Nick Suzuki is our top player in the Montreal Canadiens organization under 25 years of age.

Acquired as the main piece in return for Max Pacioretty from the Vegas Golden Knights in 2018, Suzuki has become an integral part of a Canadiens roster that made the Stanley Cup finals a few months ago.

table © Elite Prospects

Integral may not be strong enough of an adjective. Suzuki finished third on the roster behind Jeff Petry and Tyler Toffoli for regular season scoring, but really took over in the playoffs, leading the team with 16 points in 22 games. Carey Price’s fingerprints were unsurprisingly all over that unlikely Habs run, but Suzuki’s impact at the other end was nearly as crucial to what they accomplished.

It marks the second year in a row where he stepped up at the time where the games began to really matter, doing the same in the 2020 bubble playoffs the year prior. It has solidified what we already believed to be true — he is no longer the team’s 1C of the future, the role is his before he even finishes his Entry Level Contract.

Voting

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Like for Cole Caufield at the two spot, our panel is unanimous for Suzuki. Caufield may be the only threat to his crown at this point, as barring any blue-chip additions to the pool, it’s hard to see anyone else coming close to dethroning him.

Top 25 Under 25 History

2020: #1 2019: #5

Our panel has been high on Suzuki from the very beginning of his tenure with the team. Debuting at fifth before even wearing the Sainte Flanelle, he claimed the top spot one year later and continues to hold it.

Strengths

When you talk about players with elite hockey IQs, the conversation is incomplete without talking about Suzuki. He processes the game at a very high level, and displays positioning and awareness that coaches would wish all their players to have.

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His vision, coupled with the touch that he puts on his passes is simply sublime. On a seemingly nightly basis, he completes jaw-dropping passes that often create high-danger scoring chances. He can find teammates through traffic, or move defenders around with his puck handling and footwork in order to open up passing lanes. In terms of playmaking, he is absolutely elite.

But his pass-first mentality should not be construed as making him one-dimensional. He possesses an excellent shot, with a deceptive release that makes him a shooting threat as well. He showed it off a bit last season to the tune of a career-high in goals despite playing in 15 fewer games than his rookie campaign.

Defense was always a concern with him coming out of Junior, but through two years he has become a very stable presence in his own end as well. His anticipation in being able to cut off passes both in his end and the neutral zone make it tough for opponents to generate much when he’s on the ice.

Weaknesses

Suzuki is as close to the complete package as you can get, so the best bet might be to discuss the one question that exists for him within the Canadiens lineup. Can he take on the minutes that used to be reserved for the departed Phillip Danault?

It’s a tough ask. Most who follow this team would agree that Suzuki’s defensive game has improved vastly through his two years in the league. That being said, he’s likely to be faced with much tougher competition in the absence of Danault, so this should test his 200-foot game in a way we haven’t quite seen yet.

Given his consistent improvement on that front, it seems that he will be able to mitigate the biggest loss on his team’s roster. That being said, Dominique Ducharme will want to find a good balance in his deployment, as his offensive gifts will be crucial to any success this team will enjoy in 2021-22 and beyond. If they attempt to throw him directly into a carbon copied role of what Danault used to do, it would be a mistake even with his improvements defensively.

Projection

The fact that some pundits have penciled him in as a possible alternate for the wildly stacked Team Canada at the 2022 Olympics speaks volumes. Not only is he a legitimate first-line centre, he’s seen as having all-world potential.

His chemistry with Cole Caufield is undeniable, and with how they gelled over a short span last season, it should be a treat to see what they can do with a full 82 games. They’ll be the focal point of the Canadiens offense, should skate together on a power play unit, and get every opportunity to solidify that connection.

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The only real question is who lines up on the other side of that trio. Two candidates seem obvious in Mike Hoffman and Tyler Toffoli, which in either case gives the pass-first Suzuki an embarrassment of riches in terms of targets. This should also open up more shooting lanes for himself as teams adjust to cover his weapons on the wings, and he has the smarts to know when to exploit those.

I’ve had a debate with some EOTP colleagues about what his highest aspiration for NHL points would be in a regular 82-game season. I optimistically believe that he will one day have a 90-plus season in the league, while others believe his ceiling is probably somewhere in the 70s. He was on pace for 60 in his sophomore campaign, so I’ll acquiesce to my projection being a bit lofty, but I believe it will happen.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to my lofty prediction being realized is, as mentioned, Danault is gone. Suzuki is going to have to eat some tougher minutes, and what impact this will have on his ability to generate offense is yet to be seen.

At any rate, he’s arguably the best player on the entire roster right now, so we should see plenty of him come October.

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