Canadiens’ Suzuki, Harvey-Pinard facing best development opportunities yet

Vancouver Canucks goalie Collin Delia (60) watches as Montreal Canadiens' Nick Suzuki (14) skates with the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

BROSSARD, Que. — With an eight-year contract in hand, as the captain of the most prestigious franchise in hockey, up against the best players in the world every night, averaging the seventh-most ice time per game of all NHL forwards and playing in all situations, Nick Suzuki is making it easy for us to forget he’s just barely halfway through his 23rd year on this planet.

That he’s wise beyond his years is what’s enabled him to take on so much responsibility at such a young age.

But what shouldn’t be forgotten is that Suzuki is still a player in development. That he’s not a finished product just yet, even if he appears to be close to his ceiling on a nightly basis.

And with Cole Caufield out for the remainder of his season, Suzuki’s about to hit the hairpin turn on that developmental curve.

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The London, Ont., native has produced 16 goals and 22 assists for 38 points in 47 games and will be expected to continue on the same pace without the Canadiens’ best goal scorer by his side. If he can overcome the enormous challenge of maintaining his offensive rhythm without Caufield around to finish his plays, he can really bring his game to another level.

With an assist in Montreal’s first game sans Caufield, Suzuki’s off to a good start. That he looked the same as he had in the seven games before the announcement about Caufield, over which he produced five points after a cold spell for 20 days in December he and virtually all his teammates suffered through, was certainly encouraging.

But it’s not just producing consistently without Caufield that will help Suzuki develop.

“He’s gotta get used to other wingers, and that’s maybe going (to take him) on the ice in different spots because of it,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said. “Like on the power play, you saw him on Cole’s side (in Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Maple Leafs). So, the circumstances are going to (force) Suzy to get uncomfortable a little bit, and that’s where you get growth. I’m looking forward to seeing it.”

Us, too.

The first glimpse on Saturday was fascinating – and not just because Suzuki lined up in Caufield’s offensive-zone spot as the shooter on the Canadiens’ top power-play unit. He was in Caufield’s spot on the power-play breakout, as well, and in different places at five-on-five throughout a night that saw him play 25:39 (14 seconds less than his season high, which will surely be exceeded at some point moving forward).

Suzuki played a strong game between Josh Anderson and Rem Pitlick, bringing the best out of both players. He also played his most dominant shift of the game on Christian Dvorak’s wing at one point.

Suzuki will have different linemates from here to the end of the season, and the challenge will be to elevate all of them. He’ll play different positions throughout a game and be forced to cover different responsibilities than he has throughout the first four months of the schedule. It will get more and more challenging, as established players get traded ahead of the March 3 deadline and the games against playoff contenders become tighter and harder to play.

Add in the loss of Caufield, and the challenge for Suzuki will be massive.

But we believe it will also present the player with his biggest growth opportunity yet, and that’s something to follow closely as he pivots toward the beginning of his prime years.

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St. Louis challenges Harvey-Pinard to be more than just a grinder

Listening to St. Louis talk about Rafael Harvey-Pinard on Monday only reinforced how well-suited he is for the job he has.

Because St. Louis coaches a team primarily focused on development, it has to be encouraging for fans to see how three-dimensional his thinking is about the process.

When we asked St. Louis what else Harvey-Pinard could do to seize the opportunity eight regular forwards being unavailable due to injury presents him, the coach didn’t give a typical response.

Because many before him would’ve said the player just has to play to his strengths, focus on the things that got him here and stay true to his template – but St. Louis said he wants Harvey-Pinard to push it further than that.

“HP is just a guy that you can trust. He’s got NHL details in his game. He’s got a take-care-of-the-team mentality,” St. Louis said.

But then he added, “I feel he gets on base every shift, but I think there’s windows where he can swing at a triple, or a home-run play. As a player, sometimes it’s hard because it’s managing the risk. I think, for him, it’s to be willing to manage the risk and not always think, ‘I gotta make the safe play, I gotta make the safe play, I gotta make the safe play.’ There’s time and a place, yes, but there’s some certain plays in the game where I think you can take advantage of the risk-reward better a little bit offensively.

“But I think the details in his game, if he keeps playing like that, might buy him a runway to evolve as an offensive player,” St. Louis said. “I like his game, and the way he goes about his business, and I’m hopeful that there’s more on the offensive side for HP.”

What we like is that St. Louis didn’t just say this to us.

He also said it to Harvey-Pinard.

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“That’s something I need to work on,” the 24-year-old said after St. Louis held his media availability. “It’s something I’ve been talking with Martin about. As a junior player, I built myself up by always playing by the book, I wouldn’t take much offensive risk. But if I want to play and stay at this higher level, I’m learning to take more calculated risk. Not risks that put us in bad spots defensively, but ones that put us in good ones offensively.”

The instincts are there, and they’ve been there throughout Harvey-Pinard’s development.

He was a 40-goal scorer in the QMJHL, and he produced over a point per game in three of his four seasons in the league.

Harvey-Pinard then put up nine goals and 20 points in the 36 games he played as a rookie with the Laval Rocket and followed that up with 21 goals and 56 points in 69 games last season.

After a slow start this season, he put up 15 goals and 25 points in 37 games before the Canadiens called him up.

Harvey-Pinard’s been placed on a grind line with Michael Pezzetta and Alex Belzile for now, but don’t be surprised if he earns an opportunity higher up at some point.

“I think I’m a guy who’s good around the net,” he said. “We don’t necessarily see that as a skill, but for me it is – to be able to finish around the net. Finding a way to stay in front of the net is also one of my strengths. I’ve been working more and more with (director of hockey development) Adam Nicholas on also finding open space, and I’m improving with that.

“I also a need to be able to do everything I do faster. The speed of execution at this level, the speed of making decisions, happens twice as fast up here than it does in the AHL. I think it’ll happen gradually, by playing more and more games, and that I’m going to improve with that. I know it’ll take time.”

But there’s no time like the present, and the Saguenay, Que., native knows it.

“I never want to see a guy get hurt, but it’s giving me the best opportunity I have had until now to make the NHL,” he said. “I have to show I deserve to be here, even when guys return from injury. I want to be here the rest of the year, and want to be here to start next year, and the more opportunity I get now, the more prepared I’ll be to show that.”

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