While external expectations may not have been high for Montreal this season, there was always going to be pressure on new captain Nick Suzuki to perform. Just 23 years old and kicking off an eight-year contract extension worth $63 million, the Canadiens' top center is now officially under one of the brightest spotlights on the team – but he's looking at the positives.
"It feels great," Suzuki said. "I know they're putting a lot of faith in me and I want to pay them back for that. I think I can be a good player and a good captain, I think I've done the right things my first two years to earn that contract and be able to play up to that standard. I've always been a guy who steps up."
When Suzuki was approached about the captaincy by then-GM Marc Bergevin, he was told to think about it before accepting and during that period, the young pivot leaned on veteran D-man and former captain Shea Weber, who believed Suzuki was ready for the gig. The fact past team captains such as Vincent Damphousse and Hall of Famers Yvan Cournoyer and Guy Carbonneau have been available to him also helps.
"I definitely know a lot of the past captains – a lot of them hang out in the alumni room," Suzuki said. "They're always around and they're amazing to speak to and hear their stories. It's an historic line."
Suzuki also spent the summer improving his French – key in a bilingual media market – though he did have a good base already from taking it in school over the years. As for the on-ice product, he's been living up to expectations early on.
The Habs are near the bottom of the Atlantic Division right now, as was expected by most pundits, but Suzuki is doing his part to keep them in the fight each night. He's the team's top scorer with 17 points through 14 games (his best NHL pace to date) and is logging 20 minutes per game, tops among Montreal forwards. In Tuesday's shootout win over Detroit, Suzuki actually played more than all but two players on the Habs – both defensemen – logging nearly 23 minutes of duty including a significant amount shorthanded.
And like his running mate Cole Caufield, Suzuki has benefitted from the style and wisdom of (relatively) new coach Marty St-Louis.
"He brought his own energy," Suzuki said. "Practices changed a lot; they were a lot more competitive, more small-area games, making plays – he's a guy that likes to think about the game and teaches everyone. One of his main things is to teach the four guys without the puck what to do and it makes it easier for the guy with the puck. I like to hear that because I like to make plays and if guys are in the right spot it makes it easier on the puck-carrier."
St-Louis will also have time to continue building up the Habs, who will have to build back up with players such as Suzuki, Caufield, Kirby Dach, Juraj Slafkovsky and more. Getting a 'free' prospect in hard-hitting free agent rookie blueliner Arber Xhekaj was a coup, but the next few drafts will be crucial for the franchise. Having said that, you're not going to find the guys on the ice tanking for Connor Bedard or Adam Fantilli.
"Yeah, for players it's all about winning games," Suzuki said. "We want to win as many games as possible and we're not thinking about draft picks."
No doubt the Canadiens still need more help however, and getting more talent down the middle to aid Suzuki is one crucial area. In the meantime, Habs fans know they're going to get as much smart, two-way play from Suzuki as the youngster can offer. That's what captains do.