Jack Todd: Canadiens' Nick Suzuki is on a path to hockey greatness

Centre’s offensive statistics this season are comparable to those of future Hall of Famers Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews.

Article content

Nick Suzuki is like Apple stock. You invest, then you sit back and watch your investment grow.

That’s what former Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin did on Sept. 10, 2018, when he swapped former captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights for Suzuki, Tomas Tatar and a second-rounder.

Article content

Don’t give Bergevin too much credit: He wanted Cody Glass, now with the Nashville Predators. Instead he got the Canadiens’ current captain in Suzuki and atoned somewhat for the blunders made by Bob Gainey back in 2003, when the GM passed on Patrice Bergeron not once but twice, in favour of Andrei Kostitsyn and Cory Urquhart.

Advertisement 2

Article content

When Suzuki drew an assist on Cole Caufield’s goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Bell Centre Thursday night, it put him in rarefied company.

It was Suzuki’s 40th assist of the season (the third straight season he has hit that level) and it made him the first Canadien since Alex Kovalev in 2007-2008 to score 30 goals and put up at least 40 assists in the same campaign.

Suzuki now has 32 goals and 72 points, both career highs, with seven games to play. Not Connor McDavid/Nathan McKinnon/Auston Matthews territory, perhaps, but Suzuki’s unanticipated goal total puts him in company with three future Hall of Fame centremen, two-way team captains whose careers have wound down as Suzuki’s began: Slovenian great Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews and Suzuki’s personal idol, Bergeron.

Bergeron retired a day after turning 38 last July, following Boston’s unexpected first-round exit from the playoffs. Toews is currently not playing, while Kopitar remains a pivotal figure for a Los Angeles Kings team that is headed for the playoffs.

The 36-year-old Kopitar has 26 goals and 40 assists for the Kings, in line with his production year after year since he first came into the league. Only once has he greatly exceeded that figure, in 2017-18, when he finished with 35 goals and 57 assists and should have won the Hart Trophy that went to the one-dimensional Taylor Hall.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

Toews, a free agent who will turn 36 April 29, has not retired but has stepped away from the game as he deals with long COVID, chronic immune response syndrome and other issues. His offensive statistics are comparable to the others — Toews was also remarkably consistent but topped the 30-goal mark only three times, including his best season in 2018-19 when he had 35 goals and 46 assists.

Toews has 372 career goals and 511 assists for 883 points in 15 seasons. Kopitar, now in his 18th season, has 419 goals and 788 assists for 1,207 points heading into the weekend, and Bergeron retired with 427 goals and 613 assists for 1,040 points over 19 seasons.

Like Suzuki, all three were captains for their teams and players who commanded great respect both in the dressing room and within their communities, although Toews tarnished his reputation with his embarrassing support for Blackhawks management during the Brad Aldrich sexual abuse scandal.

There have never been any such missteps with Kopitar or Bergeron, nor will there be with Suzuki. He has an innate sense of right and wrong, a high level of intelligence on and off the size, and the wisdom and willingness to embrace Quebec culture.

Advertisement 4

Article content

Suzuki has made inroads in learning French, but in other ways he is like Saku Koivu, the tough, classy and smart former captain whose career was so often derailed by injury. So far (touch wood), Suzuki has avoided the injury bug that has bedevilled this organization for a decade and more. To date, he has never missed a game, meaning his consecutive-games streak stands at 366.

Consistency, class, attention to detail, a willingness to emphasize defence as much as offence — through his first five seasons in the league, Suzuki is very much living up to the example set by Bergeron.

As Suzuki said of Bergeron two years ago: “That’s the player I’ve always wanted to be and I think he’s probably the best role model for the way that I want to play. It’s great to go up against him all the time and I get to watch him when we’re not playing. He’s a great player. I’ve loved his game ever since I started watching him when I was a kid.”

Initially, it did not appear that Suzuki would match Toews, Bergeron or Kopitar in offensive production — but as with everything else about his game, his offence has consistently improved, from 13 goals in his first season to 32 and counting now.

How high is Suzuki’s ceiling? I wouldn’t hazard a guess. Until very recently, the common wisdom among the know-it-alls was that the Canadiens would be good when they had a couple of high-flying offensive centres and Suzuki was relegated to the third line.

There is an argument to be made that you are better off with solid two-way centremen than with a selfish stat-producer like Matthews on your top line. Toews has three Stanley Cup rings, Kopitar two, Bergeron one, Matthews and McDavid zero.

Suzuki? That is to be determined.

[email protected] 


Recommended from Editorial

Advertisement 5

Article content

Article content