They were numbers that stood out after an embarrassing game against the Arizona Coyotes, and they couldn’t possibly have sat well with Nick Suzuki.
His stat sheet in Monday’s 5-2 Montreal Canadiens loss read:
Goals: zero. Assists: zero. Shots: zero. Plus/minus: minus-1.
And then there was this one: 16:21. It was Suzuki’s lowest ice-time total since the second game of the season, doled out after playing more than 20 minutes and upwards of 25:24 in six of his last seven games.
He didn’t score in those games, either, with the Canadiens dressing more players from their AHL affiliate than their NHL team. But on the road, up against some of the best teams featuring the best centres and best defencemen in the league, he took on major assignments at both ends, excelled defensively and still created a lot of opportunities that players around him weren’t finishing.
Monday’s game was a departure from that, though. It was a dud for Suzuki, and he didn’t have to check the stat sheet to know it.
Neither did Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme.
We asked him prior to Tuesday’s 5-3 win what would enable Suzuki to bounce back from that performance and snap out of a funk that had seen him produce just one goal over his last 10 games.
“I’m looking for him to go back to the little things that make him have success,” Ducharme said, “and that’s being involved, that’s moving his feet, that’s being competitive.”
It would be one thing if Ducharme just told us those things.
But for all the heat the coach is taking from the fans as the losses pile up, he hasn’t thrown any of his players under the bus all season, and he hasn’t said anything to the media he hasn’t already told his players.
That’s highly commendable.
“There’s nothing I tell you that I haven’t told them,” Ducharme confirmed after the game, moments after Suzuki said a consultation with the coach earlier in the day came with a specific challenge to be better.
“Just a little quick conversation,” Suzuki said. “I don’t know what time it was, but just a couple of hours before the game. (He said) just to play hard, just raise my intensity. That was something I didn’t really do yesterday.
“When I’m playing my best, I’m an intense player. I get into the battles, win puck battles and get to the net. So, I tried to focus on that, and I thought I did a better job today.”
Suzuki had two assists to show for it, he had three hits, he blocked three shots, he got the better of ultra-competitive Stars defenceman Ryan Suter in a game-long battle and played just under 19 minutes.
“I liked his game tonight,” Ducharme said before challenging Suzuki once again.
“He needs to do that in Vegas, he needs to do that in Colorado, he needs to that in Minnesota,” Ducharme said. “He needs to be consistent.
“Again, he’s a young player, but he’s already accumulated a lot of experience. So, he needs to get to that level.”
There’s no doubt Suzuki agrees, and this is the time for him to do it—in the final year of his entry-level contract, before entering the first season of an eight-year, $63-million deal.
The lesson the 22-year-old is learning right now, which he’d surely trade for a few more wins this season, will be the most valuable one in his quest to reach his high potential. And there’s a sense he’s already taken much from it, understanding the key is not letting things slip when corrections are immediately in order.
It’s a sign of the player’s maturity that he didn’t need anyone to tell him that—even if he was perfectly receptive to Ducharme bringing it up to him.
“I knew I needed to be better,” Suzuki said. “There’s times where I just didn’t really have an impact on the game yesterday. So, Dom challenged me to be better today, and I tried to do everything I can to help the team win.”
Tyler Toffoli, who returned against the Stars for his first game in six weeks following hand surgery, played an excellent game but was also the beneficiary of Suzuki’s elevated play, notching a goal and an assist.
He’s spent the majority of his time with the Canadiens on the same line as Suzuki, and a lot of it off the ice getting to know him, and he sees a player who approaches the game the right way—particularly when things aren’t running as smoothly as anticipated.
“He’s a guy who just loves the game of hockey,” Toffoli said. “He comes into the rink every single day ready to work and ready to get better, so I think he’s as frustrated as everybody in the room not being as successful as we want to be as a team. So, to see the way he battled tonight just shows that he wants to keep getting better and keep growing as a player. And obviously this season, in general, hasn’t gone anybody’s way really, (but) he’s still competing, and he’s still showing the reason why he’s one of the leaders on our team.”