Canadiens’ Suzuki displays complete game, shows he’s on cusp of joining NHL’s best

Sam Reinhart and Aleksander Barkov each scored three points apiece and Anton Lundell deposited the shootout winner to help the Panthers defeat the Canadiens 4-3.

Everybody wants to bring that little bit of Nick Suzuki in them every nightCole Caufield

On this night, the circle almost feels complete for the captain of the Montreal Canadiens. Almost being the operative word, because despite this being the 351st game of Nick Suzuki’s NHL career — and what a game it was! — there still feels like there’s a ceiling above him.

“With his age and how big of a jump I feel he’s taken in his last 100 games, you leave yourself wondering: Is he still just scratching the surface? Is there more? Because he’s still a pretty young player,” said Martin St. Louis after Suzuki’s dominant performance in a hard-fought 4-3 shootout loss to the NHL’s top-ranked Florida Panthers.

This was hours after Panthers coach Paul Maurice compared Suzuki to Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov. 

Speaking with reporters at Amerant Bank Arena following his team’s morning skate, he said that, just based on video alone, the similarities were undeniable between Suzuki and this 28-year-old captain who’s widely considered the game’s most complete centre not named Sidney Crosby.

“When you’re in a Canadian market and you’re a skilled offensive player, there’s pressure to produce, and in that pressure to produce, especially if you’re on a developing team, there’s places for you to value the offensive side of the game more than the defensive side of the game, and I don’t think he’s done that,” said Maurice. “He’s like a real honest, hard player. And it starts on faceoffs, and he battles, and he’s under pucks. He’ll get into holes when he has the chance. He reminds me… Barkov would be the same kind of player.” 

There are other elements that link the two, and all of them stood out on this night.

St. Louis pointed to the way they both control the pace, the similar routes they take on the ice, the quality of their touches and the skills they possess, and all of that was apparent in the mirror performances they offered. Barkov opened the scoring, Suzuki answered, both of them tallied two assists each, both of them competed extremely hard off the puck, and both of them made great moves with the puck in the shootout — even if Barkov was the only one of the two to score.

[brightcove videoID=6347962133112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

The 28-year-old is still ahead in this competition, but Suzuki is catching up.

Especially in the leadership department.

“He does it every game, consistently, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for how much he pulls us into the fight,” said Cole Caufield, and he wasn’t wrong.

It’s just that, as St. Louis alluded to, Suzuki’s only halfway through his 24th year on this planet, only three-quarters of the way through his fifth season in the league, and we’ve only just arrived at this point of Suzuki being so predictably dependable night-in, night-out. 

And that’s normal.

It usually takes at least this long for any player, including the best ones, and it only would’ve taken longer had Suzuki’s development been interrupted by illness or injury at any point.

But he’s undeniably here now, and there’s reason to believe he can still reach higher.

There’d be less if Suzuki didn’t think it himself. But for as humble as he’s always been, he’s also always known how good he is and how good he can be, and he’s always pushed to be better.

And Suzuki’s success in that pursuit is at the foundation of his growing leadership.

“I just want to lead by example,” he said, “and I think when I’m playing like I can, I do a really good job of that. I set the tempo and the tone for us, and I have to. You need to be at your best every night when you get the top matchup and the most minutes. I’m learning a lot through that.”

His linemates are following.

Caufield and 19-year-old Juraj Slafkovsky see Suzuki’s commitment to rounding out his game, they see the results that have come from the work, and it only reinforces to them what must be done to help carry the load. The former is 184 games into his career, the latter (chosen first overall in the 2022 draft) is just 99 games into his, and both of them are sponging up everything he can offer.

[brightcove videoID=6347965112112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

“In practice, in games, we’re talking a lot, and I’m trying to help them a lot,” said Suzuki. “They’re both really good listeners, they want to get better, and defensively they’ve been super solid all year. If I can be that guy they look up to and want to learn things off of, that’s what I’m trying to be.”

It’s working. 

So is almost everything else Suzuki’s doing on the ice, hence his near point-per-game pace through 60 contests.

His goal in this game was his 12th in his last 13 and his 24th of the season. His first assist was a perfect faceoff win to Slafkovsky, and his second was a brilliant zone entry on the power play, giving Caufield and Alex Newhook an advantage down low, the Canadiens a 3-2 lead, and leaving him with 59 points.

But it wasn’t just about the points.

The details Suzuki displayed throughout the rest of this game—which was as hard a game as the Canadiens have had to play from start to finish—showed how well-rounded he has become. There were so many little instances of providing value: the consistency with which he was properly positioned to neutralize threats, the constant willingness to take a hit to make the right play, the way he attacked twice with perfect timing to regain precious possession in overtime.

And Suzuki did all of this mostly against Barkov and Florida’s other best players.

“He sees the best players in the league every night,” said St. Louis. “There’s nothing that overwhelms or stops Suzy. He’s not afraid of much. He’s pretty much in his place in this league.”

It doesn’t feel like Suzuki’s at the pinnacle yet, though.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.