QUEBEC CITY — If Claude Julien and the Montreal Canadiens are going to get a strong sense for what Nick Suzuki can do at the NHL level, they’re going to have throw him into the deep end of the pool and see if he can swim.
That means lining the 19-year-old Suzuki up with top-liners Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia for at least one of the remaining four pre-season games on the Canadiens schedule following Thursday’s contest against the Washington Capitals in Quebec City.
Centre Max Domi’s five-game suspension for punching an unsuspecting Aaron Ekblad in Montreal’s 5-2 loss to the Florida Panthers at Bell Centre Wednesday opens up to the door for coach Julien to do exactly that in short order.
Surely Julien would have liked to have had that time to evaluate what Domi could do in the middle of the ice. There’s no doubt the coach will also be frustrated that building chemistry between Domi, Drouin and Armia will now be limited to practice time up until the regular season gets underway in Toronto on Oct. 3.
And it’s a terrible result for Domi, who has skated the majority of his 222 NHL games as a winger with the Arizona Coyotes and is trying to get acclimated with his new team after being traded to the Canadiens for Alex Galchenyuk on June 15.
But, when one door closes, another one opens.
This is an opportunity for Suzuki, who was deemed by Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin to be the key piece of the trade that sent former Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights on Sept. 10. He made a strong debut on Wednesday between minor-leaguers Kenny Agostino and Alexandre Grenier, picking up an assist and three shots on goal in just over 16 minutes.
But Suzuki was expected to play Wednesday’s game between 20-goal scorer Paul Byron and NHL hopeful Nikita Scherbak and he was swapped out of that position at the last minute before the puck dropped.
“I think in tonight’s case it was obvious enough that we were playing against a very experienced group,” said Julien after the game. “When you have [Aleksander] Barkov and [Vincent] Trochek as your top two centres, I think I had to make a change because it’s obvious enough to me it would’ve been far too much for [Suzuki] to handle.”
It’s a logical explanation — especially given that this was Suzuki’s first-ever game at the Bell Centre. You don’t want to hurt his confidence right off the hop by putting him in an untenable position.
But if the idea is to give the London, Ont., native, who scored 42 goals and 100 points with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack last season, his best opportunity to show what he can do, the kid gloves are going to have to come off now.
And if you think about it, the Canadiens have every incentive to see what Suzuki can offer between two top-six wingers. As it stands, Phillip Danault, Tomas Plekanec and Matthew Peca are their only natural centres truly capable of filling slots on Lines 2, 3 and 4 on their depth chart and both Drouin and Domi will be forced to convert to the middle from the wing to do the job on Line 1.
Odds that Suzuki, who was drafted 13th overall in 2017, is ready to take on everything that comes with that job are minimal at best. But the Canadiens won’t know if he’s prepared to overcome them — or if he can be an NHL centre lower down on their depth chart this season — if they don’t at least give him one shot with players who can bring out his best attributes.
“He’s a young guy who’s trying to habituate himself to play at this level,” said Julien after Wednesday’s game. “We see he has good abilities. He has very good vision and he can make good plays. But, at the same time, I think he’s another young player who needs to get a little bit stronger and he needs to get used to the speed of the game up here.
“He was very good tonight. There’s a lot of good things to work with for him. But just like all young players there’s things to work on, too. He needs to acclimate to the speed of this game because it’s a lot faster than junior hockey.”
Perhaps being given a chance to do that with two of Montreal’s top wingers wasn’t originally in the cards for Suzuki at this camp. But now that Domi is parked, running this experiment is a no-brainer.
“I think I’m right there with them,” said Suzuki of his experience playing against top-flight NHLers in Wednesday’s game.
Now it’s time to see what he can do alongside them.