Stu Cowan: Captain Nick Suzuki is blossoming as Canadiens' leader

“He’s our best player,” linemate Juraj Slafkovsky says. “He’s going to try to help everyone on the ice and making those plays that count.”

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Heading into Thursday night’s game against the Hurricanes in Carolina, Nick Suzuki was leading the Canadiens in goals (10), assists (20) and points (30).

The team captain was also on a five-game point streak, during which he had 2-6-8 totals. The Canadiens had a 3-0-2 record during those five games.

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“He’s our best player,” linemate Juraj Slafkovsky told reporters in Chicago after Suzuki had a goal and an assist in a 5-2 victory over the Blackhawks last Friday, the Canadiens’ last game before the Christmas break. “He’s going to try to help everyone on the ice and making those plays that count. It’s just great to have such a smart player like he is.”

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Slafkovsky went into Thursday’s game with 2-3-5 totals in the previous four games, while playing on a line with Suzuki and Cole Caufield.

While Suzuki was leading the Canadiens in scoring with his 30 points in 33 games, he only ranked 52nd in the NHL. But he was att close to a point-per-game pace. The last time the Canadiens had a player finish a season averaging a point per game or better was in 2007-08, when Alex Kovalev had 35-49-84 totals in 82 games. The Canadiens haven’t had a player finish in the top 10 in NHL scoring since 1985-86, when Mats Naslund finished eighth with 43-67-110 totals.

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While it’s unlikely Suzuki will ever become a top-10 scorer in the NHL, at age 24 he has become a very valuable and consistent performer for the Canadiens. Suzuki increased his goal total in each of his first four seasons in the NHL, going from 13 to 15 to 21 to 26. This season, he’s a big reason why the Canadiens were only four points out of the final wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference heading into Thursday’s game.

“Our division’s always so close,” Suzuki told reporters after the game in Chicago. “We play each other a lot. It’s a lot of opportunities to gain points back. I think we’re right there. Guys are confident. Guys want to be pushing for those (playoff) spots. The way we can play against really good teams and handle ourselves I think it shows a lot from us.”

It was former Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin who acquired Suzuki from the Vegas Golden Knights on Sept. 10, 2018, (along with Tomas Tatar and a second-round pick at the 2019 NHL Draft) in exchange for former captain Max Pacioretty. It was also Bergevin who signed Suzuki to an eight-year, US$63-million contract extension on Oct. 12, 2021 — a month before he was fired as GM. The contract kicked in last season and has an annual salary-cap hit of US$7.875 million.

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“I think in my first interview when I got traded I said I wanted to prove Marc right for wanting me in part of the deal,” Suzuki said after signing his new contract. “I think I’ve just tried to do that as long as I’ve been here. Just want to keep continuing to get better. He’s putting a lot of faith in me and I want to do what’s best for the team and to help this organization win.”

While it was Bergevin who acquired Suzuki and signed him to a big contract, it was current GM Kent Hughes who decided to make him the youngest captain in franchise history at last year’s team golf tournament.

“He’s the heartbeat of our team, he’s our leader,” veteran forward Brendan Gallagher said at the time. “We’re happy to follow him.”

Suzuki has not missed a single game since starting his NHL career four years ago. Thursday’s game against Carolina will be his 325th consecutive game. That ranks third on the list of active NHL players behind Carolina defenceman Brent Burns, who will play in his 797th consecutive game Thursday, and Dallas Stars defenceman Ryan Suter with 404 consecutive games. Suzuki is the only Canadien to play in all 82 games in each of the last two seasons.

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Phil Kessel holds the NHL record with 1,064 consecutive games played after playing in all 82 games last season with the Golden Knights. Kessel, 36, was hoping to keep playing this season, but no NHL teams were interested.

“I think staying healthy throughout a season, it’s a little bit of an art,” Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis said last season. “It’s balancing everything and still doing your job. Taking care of yourself off the ice, getting in the gym a little bit. But also preventing … when you feel like something’s coming, taking care of it right away so that it doesn’t get worse.

“Luck is part of it, there’s no doubt about it,” St. Louis added. “But I think staying healthy for 82 games is a little bit of an art.”

Suzuki is leading all Canadiens forwards in ice time this season with an average of 20:56 per game and he’s also winning 55.9 per cent of his faceoffs after never winning more than 49.6 per cent during his first four seasons.

“I like where my game is right now,” Suzuki told reporters after the game in Chicago. “It’s just a matter of keeping that consistent game each and every night.”

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