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Canadiens fans have been keeping a close eye on prospect Nick Suzuki’s progress this season, but nobody has watched him closer than Guelph Storm head coach George Burnett.
Burnett, who is also GM of the Storm, acquired Suzuki from the Owen Sound Attack on Jan. 9. Suzuki was one of six players Burnett acquired in deals before the OHL trade deadline, while dealing away three players and 19 draft picks in a push to win the league championship.
On Sunday, the Storm beat the Ottawa 67’s 8-3 to win the J. Robertson Cup final in six games. Suzuki earned the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as the playoff MVP after posting 16-26-42 totals in 24 games. The Storm advanced to the Memorial Cup, which begins Friday in Halifax.
This has been quite a season for Suzuki, starting last September when the Canadiens acquired him from the Vegas Golden Knights, along with Tomas Tatar and a second-round pick at this year’s NHL Entry Draft, in exchange for Max Pacioretty. Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said Suzuki was the key player in the deal for him after the Golden Knights selected the 5-foot-11, 183-pound forward in the first round (13th overall) at the 2017 NHL Draft.
Suzuki finished the OHL regular season with 34-60-94 totals in 59 games split between Owen Sound and Guelph.
“All the wonderful things he does on the ice certainly was a big part of pulling us in the right directions,” Burnett said about Suzuki in a phone interview Tuesday. “But when you’re sitting in the dressing room and the coaches aren’t there, you hope the right things are being said. He’s a young man of very few words, but when he talks I think everybody’s listening. It was a great support system for our entire leadership group to have a player like him there.”
The trade to Guelph reunited Suzuki with Storm captain Isaac Ratcliffe. They grew up playing together in London, Ont., and were teammates with the Junior Knights midget Triple-A team before being selected at the 2015 OHL Priority Selection draft. Suzuki was picked 14th overall by Owen Sound and Ratcliffe went 15th overall to Guelph. Burnett said his team’s leadership group, including Suzuki and Ratcliffe, played a key role in the Storm winning seven elimination games during the OHL playoffs. The 67’s had a 12-0 record in the first three rounds of the playoffs and won the first two games of the final against Guelph before losing four straight.
While Suzuki is a quiet kid, Burnett said his teammates listen when he speaks.
“He’s unassuming, just kind of fits in,” Burnett said about Suzuki, who will turn 20 on Aug. 10. “He’s not the guy who’s doing all the talking — he’s not loud at all. Just very soft-spoken. The guys seem to enjoy and have fun being around him. He’s an outstanding teammate. He cares as much about the young kids on the team as he does the older guys. He’s been a terrific teammate and I think that rubs off when you have his talents and you’re just one of the guys. He doesn’t seem to have a selfish bone or a big ego on the surface. All top players have to have an ego, but it doesn’t come across in a fashion that turns anybody in a negative way at all. He’s been fun to coach and when he has something to say I enjoy his feedback.”
Suzuki has been even more impressive on the ice.
“He has a presence on the ice,” said Burnett, who played university hockey at McGill during the mid-1980s with Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock as a teammate. “He has poise and patience with the puck, his speed in open ice, winning foot races. He takes big faceoffs, he kills penalties, he blocks shots, he’s good along the wall. He takes a lot of abuse — and I don’t mean that in a negative way. A lot of kids wouldn’t put themselves in a situation to be in that kind of traffic and contact. He’s willing to go to those areas of the ice that aren’t a lot of fun to play in and get results. He certainly makes people better around him.”
Suzuki played mostly centre with the Storm, but was also used on the wing and Burnett said that versatility will help him at the pro level. The coach added Suzuki will need to continue to work on getting stronger and faster, but that he’s already a dynamic skater.
Burnett also believes the Canadiens made the right decision by sending Suzuki back for a fourth season of junior hockey.
“I think any young man that comes back and dominates has a better chance to move into the pro game, whether it’s the NHL or even in the AHL, which is a tough transition in its own,” the coach said.
Suzuki’s focus is on the Memorial Cup before getting ready for NHL training camp in September.
Canadiens fans will be watching.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019