MONTREAL — Here’s a flashback to the first memorable conversation I had with Nick Suzuki, just after he tore up the OHL playoffs en route to a championship and ran the Guelph Storm to the Memorial Cup semifinal, and just months ahead of stealing a spot most people didn’t anticipate he’d immediately take on the Montreal Canadiens roster.
It was almost exactly two years ago (June 29, 2019) that I stood with him on the soccer field at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard, Que., right after his first session of Canadiens development camp, and shared with him an observation an amateur scout had made about his 16-goal, 42-point performance in the most important games of his last junior season.
The scout had said Suzuki walked a fine line between showing off his skill and playing too casually. He questioned his intensity as a player who, unlike many rival prospects, tended to slow down the game instead of speed it up.
I didn’t recount this to Suzuki to burn him up, but I did want to see how he’d react and was eager to hear what he’d say. I also wanted to make him aware of the perception he’d have to battle to earn his place on a Canadiens team that was seemingly trending upwards despite missing the previous post-season with 96 points in the standings.
It was at that moment that Suzuki revealed his true nature.
There was no evidence this misnomer had bristled him. He was calm, cool and measured in explaining who he is as a player and what would lend to such a misconception.
"To me, I’m a pretty intense guy when it comes to hockey," Suzuki said. "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 Luke Richardson, who on Thursday morning, just a dozen hours after watching Suzuki register a goal and nine shots in a tough Game 2 loss of the Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena, cited that “sly smile” as the mark of a confident player.
No one is questioning Suzuki’s intensity anymore, either, with one professional scout reaching out after Montreal’s series win over the Vegas Golden Knights to say, “He’s sending a message to the hockey world about how competitive he is, because we all knew how good and how smart he was.”
It’s the combination that has Suzuki shining in a top role on hockey’s biggest stage. The 21-year-old, who has just 127 games of regular-season experience, has scored 10 goals and registered 21 points in his first 29 playoff games. He’s popped back up from every big hit -- and he took more than one massive one from Brayden McNabb in the semifinal -- and rebounded from every tough performance, like the one that saw him finish Game 1 of the Final as a minus-3.
“He’s an unbelievable hockey player,” said Paul Byron of Suzuki after Game 2. “We really liked his game. We like how he plays. You play the best team in the league, sometimes you’re going to have an off night. It happens. He’s a young guy. But the way he bounces back, the way he carries himself, the way he works -- he’s a tremendous hockey player and we have a lot of faith in him. He’s played incredible for us, and we know he’s going to have some big games going forward for us, too.”
Eric Staal, who’s played with and against some of the best players over the last 16 years, compared him to former Hurricanes teammate Ray Whitney -- the five-foot-10, 180-pound winger who piled up 1,064 points in 1,330 regular-season games and regularly raised his tempo in the playoffs.
“Smaller right shot, but uber-competitive and intelligent with the puck, and that’s kind of what Nick is,” Staal said. “He’s really, really competitive, very intelligent with the puck, puts himself in good positions to be able to do the right things defensively but also create offence. So, he’s a huge part of our team and obviously developing into a leader for this group and an important part of what we’ve got going here.”
Suzuki doesn’t do it with burning speed or by hitting every player in sight like Josh Anderson would -- even if his skating has come up several levels since 2019 and he’s thrown 49 checks in these playoffs -- nor does he exhibit his intensity in expressing himself like Brendan Gallagher would.
But the London, Ont., native, who has 28 goals and 82 points through his first two seasons, has undeniably taken up more and more space at the head of the Canadiens table with the way he’s carried himself.
“I think he’s a quiet guy, but he’s going to be a quiet leader,” said Richardson. “You saw in junior, you saw him tear it up there during the playoffs and you’ve seen it over the last two years just grow every game. I think it’s the confidence level that’s showing and it’s even in his smile. He’s got that sly smile on the ice. I’m sure it bothers the other team, but it brings confidence to himself and I think his teammates just showing that he’s gaining more confidence in his play and his demeanor.
“I don’t think he’s going to be a real loud, vocal, rah-rah guy, but not everybody has to be. I think some leaders are just pure by their play, and I think that’s what Nick’s going to be.”
It seems clear that’s what Suzuki is already. And as this series shifts back to Montreal, with the Canadiens desperate to get back on even terms, the occasion is there for him to continue showing it.
“Obviously we don’t want the series to get away from us,” Suzuki said after Wednesday’s 3-1 loss. “You gotta win your home games. We’re going back home to play two games there and we have a good opportunity to bring a 2-2 series back here. So, we know what’s at stake and we’ll be ready to go.”
He definitely will be.