It took several weeks for Nick Suzuki to get over the disappointment of last year’s world juniors tournament. He finally funneled that frustration into an Ontario Hockey League championship.
He remembers the excitement of the sold-out crowds for every game Team Canada played at the 2019 championships hosted in Vancouver and Victoria. There’s also the hollow feeling left by a 2-1 loss to Finland in the quarter-final which knocked Canada out of the world junior medals for the first time ever on Canadian soil.
“I’ve always wanted to win the world juniors since I was a kid,” Suzuki said. ”I’m never going to have that opportunity again. To not have that sucks.
“It was pretty frustrating. We put a lot of work in and didn’t get past the quarter-final. I will definitely always think about it.”
Suzuki has played 34 games for the Canadiens, collecting six goals and nine assists. In Montreal’s 3-1 win over Vancouver, he centred the Canadiens’ third line of Jordan Weal and Nick Cousins plus saw time on the penalty kill.
“It’s been steadily getting better,” said the 20-year-old from London, Ont. “At the start of the season I was just trying to find my game in the NHL. Now I think I’m playing a lot more like myself and within the team game.”
Suzuki had three assists in the five games he played at the world juniors. The early exit from the tournament was like a weight he carried upon his return to the Guelph Storm.
“For a few weeks I felt like something was off with me,” he said. “I wasn’t really playing how I thought I should be. I think that was just a case of having a disappointment like that. I was just trying to find my way and forget about it.”
Suzuki finally got his groove back in time for the playoffs.
“I didn’t want to come away with nothing,” he said. “I took a lot of [my] experience form the world juniors into [the playoffs].”
The Storm defeated the Ottawa 67’s in six games to win the OHL championship. Suzuki was named the playoffs most valuable player after scoring a Storm franchise record 42 points (16 goals, 26 assists) in 24 games. He had three goals and 11 points in the final series.
“Just the feeling of losing and being out of the world juniors made me really dig down deep in the playoffs,” he said. “Our whole team really came together.”
Guelph lost to the Ryoun-Noranda Huskies in the semifinal final of the Memorial Cup.
At five-foot-11 and 201 pounds Suzuki isn’t a big forward, but he has a sturdy game and makes good decisions. He has been learning to play his game while fitting into head coach Claude Julien’s style.
“You want to do everything you can to impress them and have trust from them,” said Suzuki. “At the same time, you don’t want to get away form what made you successful. Finding that balance is a good thing to do at the start.”
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Suzuki has played both forward and centre.
“It’s not hard transitioning,” he said. “I have played both my whole life. It’s just a matter of where the coach wants me.”
Weal, who has played 195 games with four teams, said like most young players Suzuki is still adapting to the speed of the NHL.
“Guys pinch and close a lot quicker than they do in junior,” he said. “You don’t get as much time to enter the zone. Down low you don’t get as much time to make plays. Things happen at a quicker pace.
“He’s doing a great job adapting to that and continues to get better and make plays.”
GM Bergevin offers high praise for rookie
General manager Marc Bergevin has been impressed with Suzuki.
“Nick [has] a very high offensive IQ,” said Bergevin. “One of those guys where out of nothing he comes up with the puck. He makes plays. He’s still young. There are things he needs to improve. That’s what the coaches work with, but overall, for a rookie, we’re pretty pleased with him.”
Suzuki was originally selected 13th overall by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL draft. In September 2018 he was the centrepiece in a trade that sent him to Montreal, along with Tomas Tatar and a 2019 draft pick, in exchange for ex-Habs’ captain Max Pacioretty.
“The history with this team is like no other in the NHL,” said Suzuki. “It’s just real special to put on the jersey.”
The 2020 world juniors begin Dec. 26 in the Czech Republic. Canada opens the tournament against the U.S.
“I know a bunch of the guys,” said Suzuki. “The games will be early, but I will probably wake up to watch them.”