Fact: The Canadiens have not had this much depth and talent up the middle in decades. Another fact: the game is won by being strong up the middle (and yeah, a solid D and goaltender doesn't hurt either).
Question: Which one of Nick Suzuki or Jesperi Kotkaniemi projects to be the better player over the course of their careers? Also, just how good can they become?
Trying to venture a guess is never easy. So much can happen over the next few years: injuries, a coach that favors one player over the other, poor chemistry with their linemates, etc. Nevertheless, let's look at some stats from the limited amount of games they have played at their young age to see if we can make some sort of a projection.
Suzuki (Suzy Q for short), at 21 years of age, has already won the coaches' confidence, so much so, that not only he is centering the Canadiens' top line, but over 50% of his starts have been from the defensive zone, a clear sign that he is being viewed as a (very) responsible two-way player.
Suzuki has also shown that he can create offense off of turnovers, with a respectable net takeaway ratio of almost one in every second game. His Corsi and Fenwick numbers are quite strong as well (Corsi of approx. 54% and Fenwick of around 57%). For those not familiar with these terms, think possession numbers or how much a team or player (in this case) controls the puck in the offensive zone during a game. Generally a Corsi or Fenwick greater than 50% is considered good.
If Suzuki's offensive advanced stats are good, Kotkaniemi's have to be considered impressive at 65% and 68% (as well as a very high relative Corsi), respectively. Having said that, 2/3rds of KK's starts have been in the other team's end of the ice. One obviously also has to factor in the matchups, and to that end as well Suzuki tends to be on the ice more often against an opponent's top 2 line than KK does. A devil's advocate however could argue that Suzuki has had the better linemates these past couple of seasons (and we can keep going back on forth...)
Outside of the statistics, however, one would expect that KK's more imposing body type will make him the more durable player, and that his laser of a shot (Jake Allen quote, not mine) will one day terrorize NHL goalies. KK undoubtedly also has very solid playmaking skills but Suzuki seems to have eyes on the back of his head and a level of creativity and anticipation we haven't seen in Montreal in a very long time. So logic would dictate that KK will be the better scorer but that Suzuki will more than compensate in the assists department, while also playing a more defensively reliable game.
But how do both compare to, well, players thought to be similar to them, at the same age?
I looked at 3 players who many in the media have drawn parallels to when trying to project what the Canadiens 2 budding stars will one day look like: Bergeron, Krejci, and Mark Stone.
In terms of stats all 3 had comparable ppg numbers at the same age as KK and Suzuki. Bergeron and Krejci eventually became consistent 65/70 point per year guys, for most of their careers. Stone however, blossomed into a greater than 1 ppg player in his mid 20s, and this, despite having played 2 of those seasons on mediocre Ottawa Senators teams.
What is interesting though, and could lead us to believe that KK and Suzuki have more offensive upside than their Bruins' counterparts, is again, how they fare in the advanced stats. Krejci and Bergeron had noticeably lower Corsi's and Fenwick's when they were their age. One could also argue that the Canadiens, with a plethora of more talented wingers, will help both Suzuki and KK put up better offensive numbers over time. Of course, the Canadiens center duo will need to show dramatic improvement in the faceoff circle to give themselves a better chance at generating consistent offense.
Ether way, Habs fans can finally breathe a sigh of relief, for that awful, glaring donut hole in the middle, that seems to have plagued Les Canadiens for the last 3 decades, appears to finally be a thing of the past.