VAUGHAN, Ont. — The Montreal Canadiens took a social media shellacking at the start of July in the aftermath of what many felt was a half-hearted attempt to steal centre Sebastian Aho away from the Carolina Hurricanes.
Indeed, the Habs’ five-year, $42.27-million offer sheet to the restricted free agent — front-loaded as it was — probably never stood a real chance of going unmatched by a team trying to build on a final-four appearance that represented its first playoff action in a decade.
The snickering was predictable, if not a little misguided. Had Montreal made a soft move like this even 12 months ago, it would have been much more worthy of derision given the Habs still seemed to have so few legit options to correct a decades-long subplot of being outgunned at centre. But with a group of young pivots that includes soon-to-be-pro Nick Suzuki on the scene now, the swing-and-miss on Aho feels more like an “oh well” shrug than a botched chance to problem-solve.
Suzuki was dressed in his Sunday best on Thursday night, attending a charity event on the outskirts of Toronto thrown by Mr. RFA himself, Mitch Marner. Suzuki attended the same Blyth Academy Marner did, the latter being one of the older kids — Marner has two years on Suzuki — the former looked up to at that early stage of his development.
Suzuki eventually went head-to-head versus Marner in the OHL and by the end of his major junior career with the Guelph Storm this past season, Suzuki had Habs fans gleefully rubbing their hands together the way Buds backers were once drooling over Marner’s exploits with the London Knights.
Suzuki not only led the OHL playoffs in scoring, his performance formed the steel rod that ran up the back of a resilient league champion Guelph squad. The Storm played a staggering eight post-season contests in which they either faced elimination or the prospect of going down 0-3 in a series and Suzuki responded with a mind-melting seven goals and 13 assists for 20 points in those high-stakes games.
Not bad for a right-shot, cerebral player whose naturally breezy countenance has triggered at least some question as to whether he lacks the all-out intensity required to thrive in the NHL.
“All the experiences we got throughout the whole playoff run took my game to another level and I really want to bring that to camp in Montreal,” says Suzuki, whose Storm lost to the eventual champion Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the Memorial Cup semifinal.
Moving from the Owen Sound Attack to the Storm late last January represented the second swap in a matter of months for Suzuki. It was right on the eve of training camp last September that the 13th-overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft was moved to the Habs from the Vegas Golden Knights in the transaction that sent former Montreal captain Max Pacioretty to the desert.
At the time of the trade, the Canadiens’ depth chart still appeared to be a barren wasteland up the middle. But that was before Max Domi showed his chops playing the position full-time in his first season with Montreal, 2018 third-overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi cracked the club and demonstrated enticing potential as the youngest player in the entire league and 2017 first-rounder, barrel-chested Ryan Poehling, was named best forward at the 2019 world juniors. Then there’s steady Phillip Danault, who finished seventh in Selke Trophy voting while putting up a personal-best 53 points this past season.
Suddenly, the centre spot is looking so strong long-term in Montreal that Suzuki might — at least to start his career — wind up showing his wizardry on the wing. Naturally, he’ll be happy to line up wherever the Canadiens want to slot him. And if his entry into pro hockey is with the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket, Suzuki says he won’t view it as a blow.
The development camp Montreal held at the end of June gave Suzuki a chance to mingle with a number of guys coming off AHL seasons and he says they had nothing but good things to say about playing in Laval under the farm team’s coach, Joël Bouchard. All Suzuki is really concerned with is putting his best blade forward come September and making sure he walks into the dressing room with a better confidence-to-reverence ratio than in the past.
“I think the years before, I’ve been too shy around the NHL players,” he says. “But now, I’m going to turn pro and they’re going to be my future teammates, hopefully. [I’m focused on making bonds] with them and coming into camp ready to make the team.”
One non-NHLer — at least for the moment — Suzuki has already clicked with is Cole Caufield, the slight sniper who fell to the Canadiens at No. 15 in the 2019 draft. The two sat beside each other in the dressing room for the majority of development camp, though they were on separate squads during scrimmages.
“Kid can shoot,” Suzuki says with a grin.
Sounds like just the player to pair with a great centre. Thanks to Suzuki and Co., the Canadiens finally have some options there.