Is Nick Suzuki the Next Captain?

Eggs Bennett Issue 21-13

December 31, 2021

This is the sixth installment of my series exploring who should be the next captain of the Montreal Canadiens. So far I’ve considered Gallagher, Byron, Petry, Toffoli, Edmundson, Drouin and Savard, and you can access those articles and others at https://habather.wordpress.com/

I’m ready to focus on a guy I see as a legitimate option to next wear the C for the Habs – Nick Suzuki.   

Suzuki is 22 years old and will turn 23 in August, on the eve of training camp next season, when we should expect the Canadiens to name a new captain. Suzuki was drafted 13th overall in the 2017 draft by the Vegas Golden Knights, and signed his entry level contract the following July. He was the key piece in the trade that saw Max Pacioretty leave Montreal for Vegas on the eve of the 2018 training camp. Suzuki attended that Habs camp but was returned to the OHL for a year of domination.

Suzuki made the team for the 2019-20 season, and gradually worked his way up the line-up. In his rookie season, he scored 13 goals and added 28 assists for 41 points in a 71-game season, shortened by COVID-19. He added 4 goals and 3 assists in 10 “COVID Cup” playoff games in that rookie year. Suzuki’s sophomore year was also impacted by the coronavirus – he had 15 goals and 26 assists for 41 points in a 56-game season and added 7 goals and 9 assists in 22 playoff games.

In the summer of 2021, GM Marc Bergevin signed Suzuki to an 8-year contract extension with an AAV of $7.875M, due to begin in the 2022-23 season. The contract made it obvious that Bergevin saw Suzuki as a key member of the Canadiens core for the future.  

It’s not hard to picture the C on Nick Suzuki.    

He leads with his play on the ice. He has worked his way into a place of significance everywhere he has played. He is composed in press conferences and takes ownership when things are going wrong. Suzuki has the character traits befitting a captain.

Suzuki is also around for the long haul. He is under contract for a top 6 centre role for eight seasons beyond this one. Bergevin was right to lock him up, and his image of Suzuki at the centre of the core was a good one.

Those who would dispute that Suzuki might make a good captain some day are few. The concern is that the Habs have a vacancy now, and there are questions around Suzuki’s readiness, and whether it is wise to maintain a vacancy while he matures.

Naming a young captain finds support league-wide.   

Habs fans may balk at the idea of Suzuki being named captain at just 23, but youth and the captaincy have been a happy marriage across the NHL for years. This is evident is a quick glance at the NHL’s current captains.

Four teams do not currently have a captain. The New York Rangers are without a captain since trading Ryan McDonagh, who was named captain at 25, in 2018. Looking in that direction, the Habs vacancy seems less concerning. The Buffalo Sabres removed the captaincy from Jack Eichel before trading him – he was named the Sabres captain at 21 – and did not name a captain for this season. The Arizona Coyotes traded Oliver Ekman-Larssen in the summer and the Calgary Flames exposed Mark Giordano for the Seattle expansion draft. Both players were named captains of their respective teams as veterans.

Then we have the Habs, whose captain is effectively retired. Weber was 33 when he was named Captain of the Montreal Canadiens, but he was just 24 when he was given his first NHL captaincy with the Nashville Predators. Bergevin may have been holding on to a dream of a miraculous return for Weber, but it is unlikely that Jeff Gorton will be in such denial.

Four teams have captains who were named as 19 or 20-year-olds. This is obviously exceptional, and the group includes Jonathan Toews, Gabriel Landeskog, Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby.

There are 10 teams whose captain was named between 21 and 25 years of age. This group includes Ryan Getzlaf, Jamie Benn, Dylan Larkin, Aleksander Barkov, Nico Hischier, Brady Tkachuk, Claude Giroux, Steven Stamkos, Bo Horvat, and Alexander Ovechkin. Three of these were named at 23 or younger.

There are some teams who named older captains, but this fact is somewhat misleading in their case. John Tavares was named Captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs at 29, but like Weber, it was not his first captaincy. Tavares was 24 when he was given the role in New York. Anders Lee was named captain at 28, but he followed a young captain in Tavares. Patrice Bergeron was 35 when he was named captain, but he followed long-standing captain, Zdeno Chara.

As you can see from the chart below, a decision to name Nick Suzuki captain at 23 would not be inconsistent with practice for a good portion of the league.

The captaincy in Montreal is a unique assignment.

The Montreal market poses a unique challenge. While many teams have successfully named young captains over the years, the Canadiens have not traditionally done so. As mentioned previously, the current captain was named at 33. Max Pacioretty was named captain at 27, and before him Brian Gionta assumed the captaincy at 32.

Saku Koivu is the youngest player to be named captain in recent history. He served as captain for nine years after being named at 25. You have to look back to the 1926-27 season to find someone who was named at a younger age – Sylvio Mantha was named captain at 24.

There are good reasons to turn to a veteran captain in Montreal. A rabid fanbase, a big business market, and an inevitable connection to language politics would be a challenge for the most astute captain. The weight of that load may be crushing for a 23-year-old.

In Suzuki’s case, he is already struggling with his new role after the loss of both Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi in the off-season. Next season there will be pressure to live up to the first year of that big contract. Is it wise to add more responsibility to his young shoulders?

A transition captain while Suzuki matures is an interesting idea.

With the Habs in Tampa Bay on Tuesday, it was hard not to imagine how Corey Perry may have helped the Habs if he was signed this season. At the end of the Stanley Cup Final, Perry told reporters he had indicated to Bergevin his desire to return to Montreal. Weeks later he had signed a 2-year deal to go to Tampa. Who knows what happened in the in between?

The leadership void in Montreal is palpable this year. Would Perry have made a difference? Would things have been different if he had been signed for two years and named Interim Captain in Shea Weber’s absence?

We will never know if that decision would have impacted the trajectory of this season. It does seem obvious that he could have filled a leadership void while mentoring Suzuki into the captaincy. But that ship has surely sailed.

Is there another option currently on the roster that can be the transitional captain? The only player that comes to mind is Paul Byron. Readers who are familiar with my Habs takes will be laughing out loud right now, since you know I’ve been advocating a trade for some time.

But there has been a significant shift for the Habs. They’re retooling and some larger contracts will move. Byron’s contract will not likely be prohibitive when Gorton starts dealing. I would still deal him for a meaningful return, but if there is no deal to be made, Byron may make some sense as a transitional captain.

He’s a veteran, with little pressure on him to be “the guy” from a production perspective. Byron is bilingual and has consistently been a valuable option for press conferences. His preference is to remain in Montreal and his temperament is suited to the transitional role. Byron will not perceive his role to be bigger than it is, or be put-off by the prioritization of youth.

Could it work? Could Paul Byron serve as interim captain while Nick Suzuki matures into the next captain of the Montreal Canadiens? They could do worse. They could have a captain who is scouting out west.

Published by Lori Bennett

Hockey is my hobby. I love a respectful hockey chat or debate, but it stops being fun if we're jerks.

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