BROSSARD, Que. — Back in early March, checking in on the progress of some of the best Montreal Canadiens prospects, I spoke to an amateur scout who lauded Nick Suzuki’s skill, raved about his hockey sense and complimented his skating before questioning his intensity.
I’m paraphrasing, but the scout essentially said that Suzuki could afford to implicate himself more between the dots and in the one-on-one battles, and he added that there’s a fine line the 5-foot-11 London, Ont., native had to toe between showing off his skill and playing too casually.
I wasn’t dismissing his expert opinion, especially pertaining to a player who makes the game look as easy as Suzuki does, but I couldn’t help but feel it was a slight mischaracterization of sorts. The 19-year-old, after seasons of 100 and 96 points, appeared as though he had risen above the level of play in the OHL this past season. And when you couple that with his style of play — of slowing down a game that’s seemingly moving faster than it ever has before — it feeds the perception that he’s not maximizing his effort on every shift.
Suzuki will hide in the shadows of the ice to evade coverage, which is often mistaken for not moving his feet enough. He’ll downshift when he’s rushing into the offensive zone instead of turning on the afterburners to beat a defender to the outside. Those are elements that speak to him processing the game at a higher level. But they’re also elements that separate him from the pack, and being different often means being misunderstood.
When Suzuki hears he’s being perceived as lacking in intensity, he feels misunderstood.
"To me, I’m a pretty intense guy when it comes to hockey," he said after pushing through his first practice at Canadiens development camp earlier this week. "I may not show it on my face or blow up guys all the time, but I take it as seriously as anything. Once I’m getting ready to play a game, I’m focused. Also, style-wise, I think if you can slow the game down at all it’s helpful for you. Guys get on you fast and if you can create any more time for yourself I think that’s a huge plus.
"I think coming down on defencemen this year, I was able to do most of what I was trying to do just by kind of hesitating, and they don’t really know what I’m trying to do but I know exactly what I’m trying to do. I guess people can take what they will out of it.
"I like to smile during games, I like having fun, too. But if people say that’s not intense, I don’t really agree with that."
Neither does Canadiens director of development Rob Ramage, who spent much of this past spring in Guelph watching Suzuki lead the Storm through a historic run to an OHL Championship.
What stood out most to Ramage as Suzuki dug Guelph out of a 3-0 second-round deficit to the London Knights, then helped them claw back from a 3-1 third-round deficit to the Saginaw Spirit before powering them past an Ottawa 67s team that had made it to the finals with a 12-0 record in the playoffs?
"Just the compete," Ramage said after development camp wrapped on Friday. "Kind of taking ownership of his role after getting traded to Guelph (from the Owen Sound Attack on Jan. 9) he was definitely the leader on the ice. So as Nick went so went the Guelph Storm. And he was targeted every game. Against London they went down 3-0 and they put an old-time defenceman on him that was kind of abusing him every game, and he fought through it.
"The last four games he had five goals, six assists and they won four straight and it was onwards and upwards from there. Just that compete level — it really became a pro compete, without a doubt. He upped it to a whole other level."
Suzuki did it from the middle of the ice, taking every key draw, earning every big assignment, and he put on an offensive show for the ages. In 24 games, he had 16 goals and 42 points — or 11 more points than anyone else in the OHL playoffs, 16 more than WHL leader Bowen Byram, and eight more than QMJHL leader (and fellow Canadiens prospect) Joel Teasdale.
In the process, the former 13th overall pick of the Vegas Golden Knights — who was acquired in the Max Pacioretty trade — felt he evolved as a player.
"I think when we were down against London I was like, ‘I can’t be finishing my OHL career like this,’ Suzuki said. "I think I just took it to another step that I didn’t really know I had. Just trying not to lose was the biggest thing. I didn’t want to go home that early, and my goal was to win an OHL title, so I think it really pushed my game ahead to another level."
It was fairly evident at the Memorial Cup, too, where Suzuki picked up four goals and seven points to finish second in tournament scoring.
Ramage saw an implicated player, one who should be commended for his involvement but also appreciated for the elements of his game that might have some mischaracterize him.
"He has (that intensity)," Ramage said. "In the small areas he just uses his angles, his hockey sense. If it’s a foot race, maybe he’s not going to win that. We’ll see. He’s not a finished product, physically, yet. So, I think there’s still another step he can find. But the mind that he has is pretty special.
"He anticipates the game. He’s one of those guys who knows what’s going happen before the rest of us mere mortals do. That’s a special trait he has. He’s got the play in his mind before it ever happens and, obviously, in today’s game, which is so quick and there’s not a lot of time and space, he’s able to figure that out and very quickly."
And Suzuki knows there’s plenty of room for growth, too. He’s leaving development camp with a mandate from Laval Rocket coach Joel Bouchard to refine his attention to detail in the defensive zone and he’s being told to focus specifically on becoming a more explosive skater, which is something he’ll tackle with a training program given to him by Montreal’s strength coaches, but also by participating in semi-private and private lessons with world-renowned skating coach Barb Underhill.
"She wants to lengthen my stride and (for me to) be more bouncy and ready to accelerate at any moment," Suzuki said.
He’ll leave his training hub in London to work with Underhill in Toronto later this summer. Until then, he’s got a vacation scheduled, and then he’ll be skating with various NHLers — Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty and San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture among them — four times a week and working out in the gym five times a week.
It’s not exactly a program he can just cruise through. It’s one that will require a fair deal of intensity, which he assures he’s equipped to bring.
"I think I’m on the right track," Suzuki said. "I just have to keep improving."