MONTREAL — So, here’s something you don’t hear every day about a 20-year-old rookie — and especially not from a 35-year-old veteran of 16 professional hockey seasons. It’s the kind of thing that makes you sit up straight and listen closely.
“He’s a stud,” Nate Thompson said of Nick Suzuki. “One of the reasons I had such a good start to the season was because of him. And yeah, I played well, but he made it a lot easier for me.”
Think about that.
A big part of Thompson’s role with the Canadiens before he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 24 was to show a youngster like Suzuki the ropes, to make him feel at home and comfortable with the team, to give him the ins and outs of being a pro, to offer him insight on certain habits he should look to develop and insight on the competition he was facing. But here he was talking about how the kid was helping him.
Thompson made it clear on Sunday that what sets Suzuki apart from most 20-year-olds is how low-maintenance he is.
“His hockey IQ is off the charts,” Thompson said. “I didn’t have to tell him anything except to just play and have fun and not worry about anything anyone was saying to him.”
It’s the reason Suzuki’s the first player anyone points at to make the case the Canadiens have a bright future.
What was obvious from the start of a season that saw the London, Ont., native work his way from fourth-line winger up to second-line centre was that he processed the game at a level well beyond his years.
And then there’s this:
“He’s the best kid, too,” Thompson said. “He works his ass off and loves the game. He’s a leader and he doesn’t even know it yet.”
We’d amend that last part to say that even though Suzuki doesn’t boast it, he almost surely knows it.
He’s a mild-mannered, quiet kid. A polite, humble type who’s certainly more introverted than he is extraverted. But you can tell that underneath that steeled exterior burns a burgeoning confidence.
Suzuki showed it en route to being drafted 13th overall by the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017. He built on it in the immediate aftermath of being traded to the Canadiens in the deal that also brought Tomas Tatar and a 2019 second-round pick over for Max Pacioretty, and he took it to a whole other level in establishing himself as the sixth-leading scorer among NHL rookies this past season.
And It wasn’t just the 13 goals and 41 points Suzuki posted in 71 games before the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on the 2019-20 NHL season — it was the attention to detail he showed that enabled him to earn the kind of trust few rookies are given by a Stanley Cup-winning coach like Claude Julien.
It’s that attention to detail that allowed Suzuki to grow by leaps and bounds over the last six months.
“For me, I thought I developed a ton. Especially on the defensive side,” Suzuki said during a 26-minute conference call with Montreal reporters on Tuesday. “I knew that was going to be an area of something I’d have to work on and I tried to do that each day in practice getting to go up against a lot of talented players. Especially going up against Phil (Danault’s) line (with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar) down low in the defensive zone.
“They’re so good at holding the puck and possession, and just going up against them in the defensive zone was huge for me and just learning how all these talented NHLers think and play and just translating that into the games was huge. And I thought I did a great job of learning each day and getting better as the season went along.”
The evidence was plain to see, and the reward was precious experience earned killing penalties and being deployed in matchups most players his age would normally be sheltered from.
The expectation is that in leaning on that experience — and on his maturity — Suzuki will be able to take another giant step forward as early as next season. Or this season if things resume in short order.
And it’s not just about what Thompson or others think about his ability to quickly progress, but more so about what Suzuki himself thinks about his potential.
“I definitely have high expectations for myself,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be an NHL player and be an impact one. I think there’s a lot of goals I’ve set for myself. And I’ve always been a quieter guy. I don’t say too much, but I think I have a lot of potential to grow and keep getting better, and I have a lot of goals and aspirations for myself and I want to make those come true. I think winning is the biggest part of that.”
That the former OHL champion’s main goal is to be known as a winner says much about his priorities being in order.
“I told every NHL team that in the combine interviews,” Suzuki said.
We’d expect no less from a rookie who’s clearly well ahead of the curve.