Nick Suzuki doesn’t say much.
He often stays on the periphery, choosing to listen before deciding if the time is right to make his thoughts known.
The Guelph Storm centre and Montreal Canadiens prospect certainly has no such reservations on the ice – especially in what has become a memorable spring in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs.
Acquired in January’s blockbuster trade with the Owen Sound Attack, Suzuki leads all of major junior hockey with 35 points in the post-season, at times willing his team to victory.
“He’s been huge for our run,” Storm captain Isaac Ratcliffe said. “He’s been that key guy, that key player we look to.”
That run has been pretty impressive.
Guelph swept the Kitchener Rangers to open the playoffs, but fell behind the London Knights 3-0 in the second round before winning four straight. The Storm then found themselves down 3-1 in the OHL’s Western Conference final against the Saginaw Spirit, only to rally for another seven-game victory.
“It’s been a pretty crazy stretch,” Suzuki said.
In the seven games in which the Storm have faced elimination, Suzuki’s combined for seven goals and 10 assists.
“You could tell this was coming from a mile away,” said Guelph defenceman Sean Durzi, also part of the trade with Owen Sound. “It’s almost been expected. You see how much work he puts in, how much he studies the game, how smart he is.”
Suzuki and his teammates followed up their consecutive comebacks by losing the first two games of the title series against the powerhouse 67’s – Ottawa set an OHL record by starting the playoffs a perfect 14-0 – but responded with Monday’s 7-2 victory that cut the deficit to 2-1. Game 4 is Wednesday night in Guelph.
The 19-year-old Suzuki was snagged in a six-player, four-draft-pick deal with Owen Sound – the last of a series of bold moves made by Storm head coach and general manager George Burnett.
“When you coach against a player like Nick, you certainly have the utmost respect for what he does on the ice,” Burnett said. “Then when you have him in your own room, you learn even more about him, what he’s like behind the scenes.
“He doesn’t speak a lot, but when he does, people are listening.”
The swap from Owen Sound was actually the second for Suzuki in four months after the Vegas Golden Knights, who took him 13th over all in the 2017 NHL draft, shipped the London native to the Canadiens as part of the package for Max Pacioretty.
Suzuki has 14 goals and 21 assists this spring, and got a taste of what life will be like in one of hockey’s hotbeds when members of Montreal’s media contingent made the short trek to Ottawa for Games 1 and 2.
“I’ve noticed it a ton,” he said of the increased attention. “It’s definitely taken a big jump from Vegas. It’s a new, different kind of passion.”
With his OHL team in another hole down 2-0 on Monday, Suzuki was once again a catalyst.
The 5-foot-11, 183-pound forward helped set up Guelph’s opener with sheer will in front of Ottawa’s net, fighting off a defender to put the puck on a platter for Ratcliffe. Suzuki then set up his other linemate, MacKenzie Entwistle, twice in the third period to round out a tidy three-point night.
“He’s just improved so much over the years, just those little minor skills,” said Ratcliffe, a Philadelphia Flyers second-round pick and Suzuki’s teammate for a season in minor hockey. “The puck always seems to find him.”
Suzuki is enjoying this ride as he tries to get the Storm into the Memorial Cup in Halifax later this month, but he’s also got an eye toward what will be a big summer as he looks to make the Canadiens out of training camp, hopefully joining another young centre in Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
“Best-case scenario is I’m playing in the NHL,” said Suzuki, whose younger brother, Ryan, is expected to go early in the 2019 draft. “I want to earn my spot.”
In the meantime, 67’s head coach André Tourigny knows Ottawa is in tough against a player of Suzuki’s calibre.
“You cannot neutralize those guys,” Tourigny said. “I’ve had a chance to coach against really good players – Sidney Crosby.
“You want to shut down those guys? Good luck. If I knew how, I would make a lot of money. That’s not going to happen. What’s important for us is limiting his time and space and make him work hard.”
Durzi said despite all the skill, hard work is what’s stood out about Suzuki since they first met at training camp in Owen Sound in 2015.
“He was a smaller guy,” said Durzi, selected in the second round by the Toronto Maple Leafs last June before getting dealt to the Los Angeles Kings as part of the Jake Muzzin trade.
“His compete level is second to none.”
That alone has the Storm believing these playoffs still have a few more few twists to come.