Some people call it “hockey IQ,” or hockey “smarts,” while others, like me, might refer to it simply as “intelligence.”
Although it’s usually a player’s physical tools that stand out on initial observation, it’s what goes on in a player’s head that might actually hold the most importance.
Some of you might remember a player named Wayne Gretzky, who — despite having extraordinary physical tools in his own right — is best known for how he controlled the game with his mind, which may be best demonstrated through the legendary quote: “Skate where the puck is going, not where it has been.”
At its best, intelligence can put a player several steps ahead of their opponents (Gretzky). That kind of elite mind is rare, but at the more common level, it can give a player a small, but still significant edge over their more mediocre-minded opponents.
I value intelligence very highly when I’m evaluating prospects — and all hockey players in general — so it’s something I’m looking for, and while observing 2019-eligible centre Ryan Suzuki, it popped out immediately.
We’ll get into the specifics elements of Suzuki’s game and how he’s able to gain an edge through his intelligence, but first, some background.
Ryan, the brother of 2017 13th overall pick Nick Suzuki, is a playmaking centre capable of dictating play with his intelligence and puck distribution. He tends to set up on the perimeter, and won’t frequently be caught in the dirty areas, but he’s able to control the game from that area at a high level through his playmaking ability. Suzuki can also threaten on the rush and as a goal scorer with fantastic speed, vision, and an exceptional wrist shot.
In his debut OHL campaign last year, Suzuki tallied 44 points in 64 games, the third highest points-per-game rate of 2019 draft-eligibles. That output ranks him 18th among draft-eligibles by Adjusted Points-Per-Game— a metric that adjusts production for differences in league and age, allowing fair and even comparison between players across leagues and birthdates.
Suzuki has started his draft year well, with 21 points in 11 games. That pace of 1.9 points-per-game is pretty obviously unsustainable— Andrei Svechnikov produced at a rate of 1.64 P/GP in 2017-18— but what can we expect from Suzuki over the entire year? Using a weighted combination of his age-adjusted 2017-18 production and his pace to date this season, we get a projection of 1.17 P/GP, which passes the sniff test. That’s right on line with successful NHLers Mark Scheifele (he of 60 points in 60 games last season) and Travis Konecny (0.58 P/GP). If I had to guess, I’d say Suzuki’s potential is somewhere between those two, as a second line centre worth about 55-65 points in a season.
If that approximation is any indication, this is a high-end prospect here. Now that we’re familiar with him, let’s dive into what makes him such an offensive threat, saving the best (intelligence) for last.
First off, his skating. Suzuki is a major threat transitionally, especially off the rush, thanks to his ability to move forward and laterally quickly. Suzuki’s stride is technically sound and efficient— he has a deep knee bend and extends his ankle at the end of his stride, both of which help him generate as much power as possible from a single stride. He can get up to speed quickly with crossovers, and can continue to accelerate as he moves through the neutral zone, further complicating things for the defence.
This clip of Suzuki carrying the puck down the ice on a 2-on-0 rush is a good representation of his straight away speed and technical form.
Suzuki uses that speed well, winning races to the puck, staying comfortably ahead of backcheckers, and burning defenders. He’s also quite agile, which he uses to facilitate his playmaking ability using quick turns and pivots to open passing lanes.
An extremely underrated part of Suzuki’s offensive portfolio is his shot, and with that, his goal scoring ability. Primarily, he’s a playmaker and a pass-first player, and he’s very good at that, but Suzuki doubles as a major scoring threat. His shot isn’t overly powerful, but it’s accurate, and he can get it off in a quick and deceptive manner. As a scorer, Suzuki continues his intelligence, getting to the right areas to receive the puck, which is often right around the crease. Without the puck offensively, Suzuki likes to drive towards the right post and hang around in that area, and it’s worked very well for him as he consistently makes things happen in high-danger areas.
The threat of Suzuki as a goal scorer also aids him as a playmaker: as he holds the puck in the offensive zone, the defending team has to be cognizant of the shooting threat that he is, and has to play him to try and take away the shot as well as defending passing lanes, and now we can start to see the responsibilities piling up. This can cause confusion within the defence, and can open lanes as defenders try to account for both the shot and pass option.
Although his shot is a dangerous weapon, Suzuki doesn’t get much attention for it, mostly because he hasn’t been a prolific goal scorer throughout his junior career. This isn’t because his shot isn’t as effective as it looks, but because Suzuki doesn’t use it very often. Last season, Suzuki averaged only 1.33 all-situations shots per game (prospect-stats.com), and just 1.14 per game at 5v5. While we’re here, we can also use the statistics to verify Suzuki’s status as an above average shooter: he exceeded his Expected Goals (the amount of goals the average player would be expected to score in Suzuki’s situation) by 3.15 goals, essentially meaning that, last season, Suzuki shot 3.15 goals above average.
Now, let’s talk transition. Suzuki was excellent in transition for the Colts last season, capable of generating controlled entries and exits at a high rate.
Mitch Brown’s CHL Tracking Project is an excellent project for evaluating transitional play in prospects. Here, we can see that Suzuki’s able to break the puck out of his own zone with possession at an elite level regardless of his age, and that he generates controlled entries at a lesser, but still impressive rate given Suzuki’s status as a D-1 player last season.
This clip shows the utility of Suzuki’s speed in the transition game, as he jumps on a puck in the defensive zone and skates it all the way down the ice, tallying both a controlled exit and a controlled entry.
And here’s Suzuki using his intelligence and vision in transition, making a backhand bank pass off the boards to get the puck to a streaking teammate.
Suzuki’s intelligence has been mentioned heavily already, but we’re now going to touch on it even further as we discuss the aspect of Suzuki’s game where his brain is utilized the most: playmaking.
Suzuki has incredible vision, the most commonly mentioned aspect of intelligence as far as playmaking goes, but there are two other, more impressive ways that Suzuki expresses his smarts on a consistent basis. lane creation
Suzuki’s always a step ahead of the play offensively, and is able to identify passing options before he even receives the puck. This has led to some pretty incredible one-touch passes from Suzuki, a skill exemplified well by these two clips.
A lot is written about Ryan Suzuki’s elite hockey sense, but it usually doesn’t elaborate on what makes it so good. Here’s one thing: Suzuki knows where he’s going to pass the puck before he receives it. pic.twitter.com/TBytqc1308
— berggren, jonatan (@DraftLook) August 8, 2018
This allows him to make quick one-touch passes that don’t give the defence time to adjust and take away lanes. Suzuki gets the primary assist in both clips. pic.twitter.com/9MDKmoJemP
— berggren, jonatan (@DraftLook) August 8, 2018
Suzuki’s also excellent at creating passing lanes, a trait that sets the best playmakers away from the merely good ones.
Watch as Suzuki cuts to the right upon crossing the blueline. He recognizes that if he drives wide on the left side of the ice, he’ll have no lane to centre the puck with two defenders already back and a third on his way, so he cuts towards the middle instead, knowing that he had a chance at sneaking a pass through when his teammate cut back the other way. The result of all that brainpower ended up being a beautiful assist and an excellent showcase of his offensive intelligence.
All in all, Suzuki is an exceptionally intelligent playmaking centre that excels offensively and transitionally. He’s able to move the puck from his own zone to the opposition’s, and can make magic happen once the puck is there. With remarkable vision and an underrated shot, Suzuki could develop into a strong dual-threat pivot if he can increase his shot volume, and projects as an impact centre at the NHL level. He currently tracks as underrated as far as the 2019 NHL Draft goes, so keep an eye on him throughout the year as a potential steal on draft day.