Canadiens’ Suzuki making it undeniable he’s a bona fide No. 1 centre

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MONTREAL — It was a one-word answer to end a debate that’s raged for the better part of the last two seasons.

“Yep.”

That’s what Martin St. Louis said when we asked on Tuesday, following his team’s 5-3 win over the Florida Panthers at the Bell Centre, if he felt the Montreal Canadiens had a No. 1 centre.

First, we asked him what, in his opinion as a Hall-of-Fame-player-turned-coach, would make a player worthy of that label.

“For me, it’s a guy that, as a coach, you feel safe when he’s on the ice,” St. Louis said. “And not safe in the sense that we’re not going to get scored on, but he’s going to control the game and he’s going to do the job defensively. He’s going to win faceoffs. He’s going to do what the game is asking him to do at the time on the ice with whatever is happening. Usually, a No. 1 centre’s a guy who reads the game really well, understands the game inside the game, the clock and the score and all that. If you’re chasing the game, he understands that he might have to take a little more risk. If we’re winning the game, he’s gotta manage that. It’s a lot of things. But I think, as a coach, having a No. 1 centre is a good feeling to have.”

And so, we followed up: “So, you think you have one?”

That’s when St. Louis, without hesitation, gave that one-word answer.

“Yep,” he said.

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Nick Suzuki’s play through 22:04 of Tuesday’s game — most of it against an undisputed No. 1 in Aleksander Barkov — only reinforced how undeniable it’s become that he’s the first one the Canadiens have had in over two decades. He scored two goals to bring his season total to 32. They were points 70 and 71 in his 74th game, making him just the fifth Canadiens player and third centre to get over 70 in the last 25 years, and they only served to punctuate to what extent he carried his team to a win.

Sure, it was a rare night that saw Suzuki win just 28 per cent of his draws. But that’s splitting hairs about a player who’s pulled back more than 52 per cent of the 1,189 faceoffs he’s taken this season. 

And that’s just one of the improvements that’s led the 24-year-old to the upper echelon of the league’s centres. 

Suzuki ranks 14th in points among them, ninth in goals, and fourth in ice-time, and we’re probably not alone in thinking he’d be further up the list in some of those categories if not for a few factors that have held him back. 

Starting the season next to goal-starved Josh Anderson is one. Losing Kirby Dach as support beneath him, in just the second game, is another. And hey, Cole Caufield, who scored his 21stgoal of the season on Tuesday, has shot at a career-low 7.3 per cent.

Still, Suzuki has continued to be excellent night-in, night-out, and he’s done it against the best players in the world for most of his shifts.

“I think this year, with all those reps he got against the best players in the league, he got really comfortable in that environment,” said St. Louis. “I’m not surprised. Whether he likes it or not, it doesn’t matter; that’s what we ask him to do, and he’s developed extremely well. It’s a challenge that isn’t easy, and there’s nights where you could have a good game but the other guys you’re facing are going to have a good one too. But I find he’s found consistency in that department of understanding it’s going to be hard but still approaching it with the right attitude, and he’s advanced.”

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It’s really just a continuation of what Suzuki did last season, when we somehow couldn’t craft a convincing enough argument that he was a bona fide No. 1 in pointing out he still put up 66 points while playing alongside either Rafael Harvey-Pinard or Jesse Ylonen — fringe NHLers — for nearly half his games. 

But we knew then what we know now, and it’s about time others gave Suzuki his due.

St. Louis clearly agrees, and he’s certainly not in the minority on the Canadiens.

“I think he’s proven a lot this year that he should be considered a 1C,” said Caufield. “The Nick Suzuki respect train should be pretty high right now. It is in here.”

Panthers coach Paul Maurice was on it at the beginning of March — comparing Suzuki to his own No. 1, Aleksander Barkov — and he probably left the Bell Centre Tuesday with further confirmation of his opinion.

At five-on-five, the Canadiens’ captain helped his team control 58 per cent of the shot attempts and 65 per cent of the expected goals when he was on the ice, and he did it playing more against Barkov (7:04) than any other player on the Panthers not named Vladimir Tarasenko (7:52).

Suzuki had help from Caufield, and help from six-foot-three winger Juraj Slafkovsky, who assisted on Caufield’s goal and made a giant impact on the physical side of the matchup. 

But he drove this result more than anyone, in a way only a No. 1 centre can.

“He’s our leader for a reason,” said Jake Evans, who scored Montreal’s fifth goal while the team was killing a third-period penalty. “He steps up in big moments, and he led this team for this game tonight.”

It’s what Suzuki was drafted to do for the Vegas Golden Knights, when he was taken 13th overall in 2017. 

He was labeled by former Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin “the key piece” of the deal that also brought Tomas Tatar to Montreal and sent Max Pacioretty to Sin City in 2018, and Suzuki immediately showed why by following up a 100-point season with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack with a 96-point one that preceded a 42-point playoff performance in 24 games with the Guelph Storm. 

And in each of his five seasons in the NHL, he has climbed his way up to the pedestal without ever stepping back. 

“He’s been unbelievable for us every game,” said Caufield, “and he’s only going to get better.”

Debate that all you want, but the argument Suzuki isn’t already a No. 1 centre no longer holds water.



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