Monday, April 15, 2024

Todd: Is Nick Suzuki a No. 1 centre? He’s certainly acting like one

Montreal’s captain is a smart, smart player. He functions in any role and in any situation and he’s the ideal captain for this young team.

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It’s a column I wish I hadn’t written. Anyone who does this for a living commits a few.

It was published Dec. 7, 2014, and it came in the wake of the death of the most titanic player and human being in the long history of the Canadiens, Jean Béliveau. It pointed out that the esteem in which Béliveau was held tended to obscure his greatness as a player, the 507 goals and 712 assists racked up during the regular season, an additional 79 goals and 176 points in playoff battles that were as near to war as you can come without calling in an artillery strike.

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And above all, the 17 Stanley Cups, 10 as a player and seven more as a team executive.

So far, so good. But the real subject of the column was the player who had been asked to fulfil the role Béliveau performed so long and so well, that of No. 1 centre on the league’s greatest team — No. 51, David Desharnais.

The story I wrote belaboured the obvious, the fact that Desharnais was in no way a top-line centreman. “If the team’s top centre was decided by a fan vote today,” I wrote, “Desharnais would finish behind Sven Andrigetto, Pierre Gervais and Youppi! — a rookie winger, an equipment manager and a fuzzy orange mascot.”

That may have been a slight exaggeration, but Desharnais was filling a role he did not have the talent to fill. He was where he was because he was Max Pacioretty’s centre and for some unfathomable reason, the big sniper clicked with Desharnais better than he did with anyone else.

That wasn’t Desharnais’s fault. The team’s weakness up the middle was on Marc Bergevin and his predecessors, Pierre Gauthier and Bob Gainey. The fact that Tomas Plekanec was also on that team and getting less ice time than Desharnais also wasn’t his fault — that was on Michel Therrien.

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Desharnais, his numbers dwindling, would remain with the Canadiens until the end of February 2017, when he was dealt to Edmonton for forgotten defenceman Brandon Davidson. He would finish his career in 2023, after a season in the KHL and four in the Swiss League.

When GM Bergevin was fired in November 2021, he was still being blamed for his failure to acquire that elusive No. 1 centreman and derided for his comment, made in 2019, that “it’s hard to get top centremen. They’re just not available.”

In truth they were available. The St. Louis Blues had just won a Stanley Cup after trading for Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn. Ironically, Bergevin himself had already acquired his No. 1 centre when he dealt Pacioretty to the Vegas Knights for Tomas Tatar, a 2019 second-rounder and one Nick Suzuki, the 13th overall selection in the 2017 draft, a centreman who had yet to play a single game in the NHL.

Tatar would go on to have a useful turn with the Habs. Suzuki had just turned 19 and although he had put up some impressive numbers with the Owen Sound Attack and the Guelph Storm, success in junior hockey often fails to translate to the NHL. That would not be the case with Suzuki.

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By the time the Canadiens rode that extraordinary wave of luck and determination to the Stanley Cup final in 2021, Suzuki was already a key cog in the short-lived Dominique Ducharme machine. He had 15 goals and 26 assists in the regular season and picked up seven more goals and nine assists in 22 games in the playoffs.

Doubters remain. Is Suzuki a top-line centre? Does the designation really matter? He’s scoring at nearly a point-a-game pace, with 19 goals and 33 assists in 54 games. He’s a smart, smart player. He functions in any role and in any situation and he’s the ideal captain for this young team.

Above all, he is now the centre of a bona fide No. 1 line with Cole Caufield and Juraj Slafkovsky, with all three players riding impressive 25-game streaks even though Suzuki is 24, Caufield 23 and the guy they’re calling “Slafshotsky” only 19.

(Slafkovsky now has nine points in his last six games and 12 goals and 17 assists on the season, while Pierre-Luc Dubois, the guy everyone wanted the Canadiens to acquire, has 11 goals and 11 assists — for a mere $8.5 million a season. Slafkovsky’s attitude could hardly be better, while Dubois has already blown up on two organizations.)

But it’s up the middle where the Canadiens look best. Even without Sean Monahan, the club in the near future should be as strong at centre as they have been at any time since the 1993 Cup, with Suzuki, Kirby Dach, Jake Evans, Christian Dvorak, the versatile Alex Newhook and 20-year-old Owen Beck, who has 11 goals and 15 assists in 16 games since he was traded to the Saginaw Spirit.

Given what they have, would Kent Hughes really risk it all in a deal for slick Anaheim centreman Trevor Zegras?

I don’t believe he would. On this team, “Max Pacioretty’s centre” is no longer a position.

jacktodd46@yahoo.com

twitter.com/jacktodd46

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