Skip to main content


Two-way development of Suzuki, Caufield brings hope to Habs

Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki - Getty Images

One of the early signs that a team is preparing to launch itself out of the depths of a deep rebuild comes when a young core at the top of the lineup starts to take the game to their opponents on a regular basis.

The Atlantic Division has been no stranger to deep rebuilds over the years and the Montreal Canadiens are no exception. Montreal hasn’t qualified for the postseason since their Stanley Cup Final run in 2020-21, and this season will extend the drought – Martin St. Louis’ team is pacing to finish with about 74 points in the standings and a -65 goal differential.

The goal differential tells you just how much work there’s left to be done with this lineup; even the most ardent Canadiens supporter sees some of the issues on this team, with a ragtag group of depth players and one of the worst special teams units in the NHL. Notably, their penalty kill is conceding 10.5 goals per 60 minutes played — a tick from dead last in the league. It’s still been much more bad than good.

But even amidst those concerns there is reason for hope in Montreal, thanks to the two-way development of Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield.

Each player has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Suzuki has close to two seasons more of experience at the NHL level, and understandably is a bit further along in his development. He has reliably shown he can be a playmaker in this league with the ability to create time and space for himself and his wingers.

That’s precisely the type of pivot you need for a player like Caufield; a wondrous individual goal-scorer and shooter of the puck. But what this duo has generally brought to the table in terms of offensive flair, it has traded off (and then some) defensively over the years.

A few things have changed this season. To start, Suzuki has been just as much a scorer as a playmaker, and that’s ramped up considerably lately. In fact, over the last month, Suzuki’s 10 goals trail only the venerable Auston Matthews in Toronto:

Suzuki has notably started doing a lot of damage on the first unit of Montreal’s power play – he’s a top-40 goal scorer league-wide there, ahead of names like Toronto’s Mitch Marner, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, and Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen. We know Suzuki has an impressive offensive tool box, but the individual offence – at least until this season – has looked more second-line quality than anything else. In year four, that’s forcing a bit of a rethink.

But the real story in Montreal is what Suzuki and Caufield are doing at even strength, and the positive influence it is starting to have on19-year-old winger Juraj Slafkovsky.

In a stunning reversal, the Canadiens are now net winners by both goal differential and expected goal differential with Suzuki and Caufield on the ice. Two notable takeaways: Caufield and Suzuki have reliably been better together than when separated, and the expected goal rates give you much more confidence this isn’t a tandem riding the percentages, so to speak:

The Canadiens were regularly blown off the ice in prior seasons, and an awful lot of it had to do with their inability to keep pucks out of their own net. No amount of offence on a temporary basis (remember Caufield’s sophomore season heater?) could offset how much time they spent in the defensive third, and how many of those shots against turned into goals against. How much you apportion that to goaltending versus the structure is up for debate, but there’s no question the Canadiens lineup has been light on defensive prowess during the rebuild.

That’s changed this season. Goals against have plummeted, but it’s not in and of itself because the triumvirate of Sam Montembeault, Cayden Primeau, and Jake Allen have outperformed. They are under materially less pressure, and that starts with Suzuki’s line:

The team as a whole has improved considerably on this front, but Suzuki and Caufield are comfortably team leaders – an important consideration with their most frequent opponents being top-six forwards from around the league.

It’s not their time yet, but Montreal looks ready to turn a corner. And if they do, that’s bad news for the rest of the Atlantic Division.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference