Nick Suzuki locked in as a cornerstone for Montreal Canadiens' future
20-year-old might be the top-line centre the Habs have been searching for
The Montreal Canadiens are putting on a brave face as Monday's trade deadline approaches.
The players and coaches are saying the right things to the media about not giving up hope in their pursuit for a playoff spot and to their credit, the team's effort on the ice hasn't wavered.
But the odds they will make it are long and everyone knows it. Even with the seemingly miraculous return of captain Shea Weber from injury weeks earlier than expected, the players are aware a roster teardown on or before deadline day is possible.
"There's anticipation to see what happens," rookie Nick Suzuki said Monday. "I want everyone to stay. I feel like our whole team feels the same way."
Suzuki is only 20 years old but he has already learned firsthand about the realities of professional hockey.
'It was a perfect fit'
He was traded before he even played a game for the team that drafted him, coming to Montreal as the centrepiece of a deal with Vegas which saw Max Pacioretty, then the Habs' captain, going the other way.
"It was kind of just shocking trying to wrap my head around it," Suzuki said. "When I got drafted to Vegas you never think about being traded before you can get to play there. But when the opportunity came to come here I think it was a perfect fit."
Unlike many of his teammates, Suzuki shouldn't have to worry about being traded again.
In his first season in Montreal he has steadily improved, emerging as an indispensable part of the team's plans to build a winner.
Suzuki is tied for third overall in rookie scoring with 40 points and among rookie centres he is tops in the league in both points and ice time.
Beyond the numbers Suzuki passes the eyeball test in flying colours. He possesses a hockey IQ beyond his years, regularly makes clever plays with the puck on his stick and plays a sound defensive game.
But perhaps the most impressive part of Suzuki's game is his durability.
"He played in the Memorial Cup, he played at the world juniors, he's been through the grind of a schedule," Montreal head coach Claude Julien said.
Juilen says it's common for some young players to hit a wall after some promising early season returns. This season alone, Montreal fans have watched as prospects Cale Fleury, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling were sent down to the AHL in Laval to work on their game after the NHL proved to be too much of a challenge for them night after night.
But Suzuki has bucked the trend and hasn't faded under the pressure of a rigorous NHL season — he's played in all 62 games for Montreal, making him the only rookie forward in the league who holds a 100 per cent attendance record with his organization's big club.
"I've had a lot of experiences through junior and minor hockey just mentally training myself to be in tough situations," Suzuki said.
"That's probably the most important thing right now that's helping him," Julien said. "He's a smart player, he figures it out, but at the end of the day it's having been through that grind before. Once the guys go through it once they're a lot better the second time around. So to me, he had it before he got here and that's why he's doing well."
Suzuki credits support from his teammates and family for his smooth adjustment to NHL hockey.
He said everyone on the team has helped him grow as a player, but singled out Philip Danault and Tomas Tatar as two guys who made a difference in his physical preparation off the ice and his mental preparation ahead of games.
He also speaks daily with either his parents in London, Ont., or his brother who is currently playing junior in the Ontario Hockey League for the Saginaw Spirit.
"It's good to have that support. My parents raised me to be a good worker first, and me and my brother have been pushing each other since we were kids," Suzuki said.
It's also true that he's not the first well-known person in his family tree. David Suzuki, host of the long-running CBC show The Nature of Things, is a distant relative.
"He's my grandpa's cousin. So not a lot of blood related there but I get to say I'm related," Suzuki said.
Suzuki will also get to say that he's accomplished a lot in his first NHL season if he can keep up the pace he's set for himself. It may not end with a playoff run or a Calder Trophy recognizing him as the league's the rookie of the year — Colorado defenceman Cale Makar is the front-runner — but he might get nominated for the award.
Regardless of any post-season accolades, it's clear Suzuki will be at the centre of the Habs' plans as they retool for the future.