Nick Suzuki did not shy away from the challenge when faced with the stiffest competition of his hockey career.
The Montreal Canadiens’ prospect was impressive on Wednesday night despite not recording a point.
The 20-year old centred the third line and played between experienced forwards Charles Hudon and Jonathan Drouin in the Hab’s 3-0 loss to Toronto on Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena.
Canadiens’ coach Claude Julien routinely put Suzuki against the Maple Leafs’ best and the youngster held his own opposite John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and Auston Matthews.
“Facing off against some of the most talented players in the league, it was a good challenge and I thought I did a good job face-off wise and in the defensive zone,” said Suzuki, beside his locker after the game. “It’s the first time I’ve played against that talent and I thought I did a pretty good job.”
Suzuki, the main return from the Vegas Golden Knights in the trade for former captain Max Pacioretty, was able to keep up with the fast-paced and physical Toronto attack, earning praise from his coach.
“He’s holding his own. You saw him get hit pretty good by Matthews, but you also saw him go after Matthews with a good hit,” said Julien, to media in the post-game scrum. “He’s not afraid, he’s not timid, he holds his own and that’s what you like to see.”
The 13th-overall pick in 2017 has impressed enough that Julien gave him the fourth most ice-time among Canadiens forwards and put him on the ice during a second-period penalty kill against the Leafs’ dangerous forward trio.
Having earned the coaches trust in crucial situations has given the London-native plenty of confidence moving into an important juncture in his career.
“Being [on the penalty kill] out there gives me a lot of confidence. The coaches seem to have trust in me for penalty killing,” said Suzuki. “Just to be out there as much as I can, I think I’ve done a good job.”
Wrapping up his third NHL training camp and second with the Habs, Suzuki has made fast friends with 2018 third-overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and the pair have talked about the path to making the NHL roster at such a young age.
“We talked about it a little bit. He had a great year, I want to be that next young guy to come in and play in the NHL as he did,” said Suzuki.
Through four preseason games, Suzuki has made a strong case to make the club out of training camp, posting three points in four games.
Against the nearly full-strength lineup of Toronto, the young centre was one of the lone bright spots in a contest where his team was dominated, being outshot 49-26.
Julien knew that his team could struggle without some of its top talents but used the opportunity to see which bubble players could hang at the NHL level.
“It was pretty obvious some guys would have a hard time handling that pace and that calibre,” said Julien. “But it solidifies a little of what we’re thinking along the way and it gives guys an opportunity to prove themselves.”
If Wednesday’s performance is any indication, Suzuki has given the Canadiens’ coaching staff plenty to think about prior to next Tuesday’s roster deadline.
Suzuki knows that he has performed as best he could throughout the preseason but will not worry about a decision beyond his control.
“I’m not [too anxious], to be honest. I don’t really put a lot of thought into it, I’ve just got to come prepared every day,” said Suzuki. “I think I’ve done everything I can and tried to play as best as I can to try and make the best of every opportunity I’ve been given.
“I’m proud of my effort.”