Stu's Slapshots: Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki continues to impress

Also a look back at the Chris Chelios trade from Montreal to Chicago in 1990 after Blackhawks retired his No. 7 sweater last Sunday.

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February was a month to remember for Nick Suzuki.

The Canadiens captain posted 11-6-17 totals in 11 games to rank seventh in NHL scoring during that span. The only player who scored more goals than Suzuki in February was the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews, who had 13 goals in 12 games. Suzuki’s 32.4 per cent shooting percentage in February was the highest among players who scored at least six goals during the month.

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With 24-35-59 totals in 60 games, Suzuki ranked 31st in NHL scoring through Thursday’s games and 14th among centres, according to the league website. He is on pace to finish the season with 81 points. No Canadiens player has reached the 80-point mark since Alex Kovalev posted 35-49-84 totals in 2007-08. Suzuki was 8 years old when that happened.

Suzuki is in the second season of an eight-year, US$63-million contract former Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin signed him to and he’s already starting to look like a great bargain with an annual salary-cap hit of US$7.875 million.

While Suzuki’s offensive numbers in February were impressive, what impresses me most about him is just how smart he is on the ice. He never wastes energy on his shifts, but almost always seems to be in the right position at the right time both offensively and defensively. He’s very economical in the way he uses his energy, which allows him to average 21:13 of ice time per game, which ranks eighth among NHL forwards. He’s also a defenceman’s best friend deep in the defensive zone, coming in to help at just the right time behind the goal line and in front of the net.

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Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis said Suzuki plays “The Game” — one of his favourite terms.

“It’s not always your turn to work on the ice, physically,” St. Louis said this week when I asked about Suzuki conserving energy on his shifts. “I think Suzy has a good balance of when he’s working mentally, when he’s working physically. Sometimes it’s both. But if you’re just going on the ice and work, work, work, work, work, it’s really hard to have that energy now when it’s your turn because maybe you’ve been working for no reason for half your shift when you should have been more working mentally and positionally sound. And then when it’s your turn to work physically, you have gas in the tank to do that. So I think Suzy’s got the right balance.”

That balance impresses teammate Alex Newhook.

“He’s a smart player,” Newhook said about Suzuki. “In a lot of ways, he’s elite at the way that he thinks the game. Energy conversation is one of his big things. He seems to have the gas he needs when the puck’s on his stick and when it’s not, too, to get in the right areas. He’s fun to watch.

“He’s a reliable guy,” Newhook added. “He has that offensive flair and smarts to produce and be a reliable guy in that sense. Defensively he’s really good, too. He seems to be in the right positions all the time — supporting positions.”

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Suzuki has also improved in the faceoff circle, winning 53.6 per cent of his draws this season — a big jump from 47.3 per cent last season. He has never missed a game during his five seasons in the NHL — a streak of 351 consecutive games that ranks third among active NHL players behind the Carolina Hurricanes’ Brent Burns (821) and the Dallas Stars’ Ryan Suter (433), who are both defencemen.

There’s definitely a lot to like about the Canadiens captain.

More praise for Suzuki

You can include Florida Panthers head coach Paul Maurice among the people impressed by Suzuki’s play.

“I would say that he has a whole lot of (Aleksander) Barkov in him,” Maurice told Florida Hockey Now ahead of the Canadiens’ 4-3 shootout loss to the Panthers Thursday night.

That’s high praise, indeed, when you consider Barkov won the Lady Byng Trophy in 2018-19 as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player and the Frank Selke Trophy in 2020-21 as the league’s top defensive forward.

“Especially when you’re in a Canadian market and you are a skilled offensive player, there’s pressure to produce and in that pressure to produce, especially if you are on a developing team, there are (expectations) placed for you to value the offensive side of the game more than the defensive side of the game,” Maurice said about Suzuki. “I don’t think he’s done that.

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“He is a real honest, hard player,” Maurice added. “He starts on faceoffs, he battles, he’s under pucks and he’ll get into holes when he gets the chance. Barkov would be the same kind of player where, at the end of the year, you will probably be able to say both men have left offence on the table, and appropriately so.”

Where’s the offence?

While Suzuki is putting up impressive offensive numbers, too many other Canadiens forwards aren’t.

Through Thursday’s games, the Canadiens ranked 27th in the NHL in offence, scoring an average of 2.77 goals per game. Thirty-nine of the Canadiens’ 170 goals have come from their defencemen. The only team in the NHL with more goals from their blueliners is the Colorado Avalanche with 48.

Only four current Canadiens forwards have scored 10 goals or more: Suzuki (24), Cole Caufield (19), Juraj Slafkovsky (13) and Joel Armia (10). Through Thursday’s games there were 230 players in the NHL with at least 10 goals.

I don’t think anyone would have predicted Suzuki would have five more goals than Caufield at this point in the season. Caufield’s shooting percentage last season was 16.5 per cent when he scored 26 goals in 46 games. His shooting percentage this season is 8.4 per cent, which helps explain why he has 19 goals in 60 games.

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Caufield had only two goals in February and they both came in the same game — a 7-4 loss to the Rangers on Feb. 15 in New York. He has no goals in the last six games.

Jesse Ylönen has no goals in his last 38 games, while Josh Anderson has gone 15 games without a goal. Jake Evans has two goals in the last 32 games, Tanner Pearson has one goal in his last 16 games, Brendan Gallagher has one goal in his last nine games and Armia has one goal in his last eight games.

One of the biggest problems the Canadiens will face as this rebuild continues is getting goals from their forwards. Where are they going to come from?

“I think we have a lot of young players that are still not finished products,” St. Louis said when I asked him that question this week. “Some are here, some are in Laval, some are not pro yet. I think we have a pretty good pool of players that we see great things for them. I feel our youth that’s doing well is not in their prime.”

Counting on Roy?

Joshua Roy is one of the young forwards who might be able to provide the Canadiens with offence in the future.

The 20-year-old had 13-19-32 totals in 40 games with the AHL’s Laval Rocket this season and has 1-5-6 totals in 15 games with the Canadiens. Roy, selected by the Canadiens in the fifth round (150th overall) of the 2021 NHL Draft, was the QMJHL’s leading scorer in 2021-22 when he had 51-68-119 totals in 66 games with the Sherbrooke Phoenix.

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“He’s a very smart player,” said Newhook, who has been playing on a line with Roy and Armia. “I think he’s proven to produce at every level he’s played at … that’s pretty evident. He puts himself in good spots to get the puck, he creates space for other guys. It’s been fun to watch him so far. A young guy coming into the league and it’s been great to be alongside him and try to help him out any way I can.”

Newhook added the forwards deserve some of the credit for the offence the defencemen have produced this season.

“A lot of that comes from the forwards as well with net-front traffic and getting the puck to them,” Newhook said. “I think a big part of it is our D is active. That’s the way we play … we want to have the D involved in the play.”

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Amen Corner for Habs

The Canadiens will play the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday (7 p.m., CBC, Citytv, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM) in the second game of a four-game road trip that will include stops in Nashville on Tuesday and Carolina on Thursday before returning home to face the Toronto Maple Leafs next Saturday night at the Bell Centre.

“Usually for me the Florida-Tampa-Carolina (trip), with The Masters (golf tournament) around the corner, to me it’s like Amen Corner,” St. Louis said before the team left on the trip, referring to the 11th, 12th and 13th holes at the Augusta National Golf Club that often determine the Masters golf champion. “So you have to bring your A game. You have to be precise, you have to be engaged. You got to manage the risk that you take. It’s a lot like Amen Corner right now the way the league is and the way those teams are set. On top of that you got Nashville.”

The Canadiens will fly to Nashville after Saturday’s game and enjoy a day off in Music City on Sunday before practising at 1 p.m. Monday at Bridgestone Arena.

Nashville is my favourite NHL road city. It’s impossible not to have a good time on Broadway St. with all its honky-tonk bars and shops — and you don’t even have to love country music. Last season, the Canadiens’ game in Nashville was part of their mothers’ trip and they lost 6-3 to the Predators.

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Caufield also puts Nashville at the top of his list of NHL road cities.

“It’s top five, for sure … probably not 4, 3 or 2 … or 5,” he said with a grin. “It’s a good time and good weather. The mom’s trip was fun. But a little bit more business this time than last time. I never went there as a kid, so the first time was the mom’s trip and it was fun.”

Caufield is a big country-music fan and said his favourite singer is Luke Combs.

Arber Xhekaj is also a big country-music fan and visited Nashville for the first time last season when the Canadiens played the Predators.

“I like all the boots and hat shops … just the whole vibe of the city is pretty cool,” Xhekaj said. “My mom loved it, too. She had never experienced that before and neither had I. So it was a first for both of us and it was fun.”

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Blackhawks honour Chelios

The Chicago Blackhawks retired No. 7 in honour of Chris Chelios before last Sunday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings.

The Blackhawks lost 3-2 in overtime.

The Canadiens selected Chelios in the second round (40th overall) of the 1981 NHL Draft. He was part of the Canadiens’ Stanley Cup team in 1986 and won a Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman in 1988-89. He was traded to the Blackhawks on June 29, 1990 — along with a second-round draft pick in 1991 (forward Mike Pomichter, who never played in the NHL) — in exchange for Denis Savard.

Chelios and Savard are both in the Hall of Fame now.

“The day I was traded to Chicago was the greatest day of my life,” Chelios said during his sweater-retirement ceremony last Sunday. “The summer of ’90-’91 I got that phone call from (former Canadiens GM) Serge Savard — it was the shortest phone call you could ever imagine. My heart dropped when he said I was traded, but he continued to say: ‘But I traded you home to Chicago.’

“I hung up that phone, I called my mom and dad out in San Diego: ‘Let’s go, you guys, we’re moving back home,’” added Chelios, who was born in Chicago. “In two weeks, three weeks, we were back in Chicago, mom and dad caught that first opening game against the Rangers. Unbelievable. It was a dream come true. A team you grow up watching and, all of a sudden, I’m walking up those stairs at the old (Chicago) Stadium and I’m stepping on the ice.”

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They say time heals all wounds and that seems to be the case with Chelios, because he was not happy when the trade to Chicago first happened.

“It sucks,” a stunned Chelios told the late, great Red Fisher of The Gazette shortly after the trade happened. “That’s pretty much what I want to say. It just sucks, but that’s life.

“Serge called from Bermuda and told me everybody was all over him to make a move,” Chelios added. “He told me it was something he felt he had to do. No hard feelings, he told me.

“I guess the initial reaction after being traded is that you try and act like it doesn’t bother you,” Chelios continued. “It does bother me. Now I’ve just got to move on. It’s easy to say this early, but that’s about all I can say.”

Chelios also told Fisher after the trade he wanted to finish his career in Montreal.

“I loved it there,” he said. “I went through a couple of years when I was undecided, but I felt I was at a point where I was OK, where I was settled. I was wrong. What are you gonna do? What the hell do you do when you get traded? Where do you start?

“I’m not bitter,” Chelios added. “In a way, I’m happy, and in a way I’m not happy. I guess I have no reason to be embarrassed to be traded for Denis Savard.”

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Fisher didn’t like Chelios trade

The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1993 without Chelios.

That was also Savard’s last season in Montreal and he finished the playoffs working behind the bench as an assistant coach to Jacques Demers after being injured. Savard would play four more seasons in the NHL after leaving the Canadiens as a free agent with the Lightning and Blackhawks.

Chelios would play 19 more seasons after being traded by the Canadiens, winning two more Norris Trophies and two more Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings.

Fisher didn’t like the Chelios-for-Savard trade when it happened.

“He is, or rather was, the Canadiens’ only leader,” Fisher wrote after the trade. “The Canadiens know it. More importantly, the opposition knows it.”

Fisher added:

“Chelios was not merely the closest thing to an untouchable on this Canadiens team. He was one. Every game was a gut-wrenching experience for him. Each challenge was something to be met head-on. A job had to be done, and he was the leader. He took charge. He didn’t want it any other way.

“What made Chelios special is that the opposition always made it plain to him that they were out to get him. ‘Come and get me,’ he would tell them — and then he would get them.

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“That made Chelios more than special. The Blackhawks are lucky to have him.”

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Memorable week for Chelios

Sunday’s number-retirement ceremony was the start of an unforgettable week for Chelios.

Forty-eight hours later, Chelios’s daughter, Caley, gave birth to her third child.

Caley now works as a broadcaster and hockey analyst for the Blackhawks.

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