When any NHL team names a captain, it’s big news — but even more so when it’s the most storied franchise in the history of the sport. That’s what happened today when the Montreal Canadiens named Nick Suzuki the 31st captain in team history, the first captain of Asian descent in team history (and only the second ever in the NHL after Paul Kariya), and the youngest Canadiens captain in quite some time at 23 years old.
11 months to the day after signing an eight-year extension to stay a Hab well into his prime, Suzuki adds his name to a storied list that’s worth taking a look at. While doing so would be a nearly academic-length exercise if done all the way back to the beginning of the franchise, taking a look back at the leaders of the Canadiens in recent memory still helps offer some context for the type of echelon Suzuki joined today.
Perhaps the most universally beloved Habs captain in recent memory is Saku Koivu. Serving from 1999 to 2009, his nine-year shift as captain is the longest for a Canadien since Jean Beliveau held the role from 1961 to 1971. Despite some great memories, though, Koivu’s era was not defined by playoff success. The team failed to make it out of the second round despite three appearances in that timeframe (2002, 2004, 2008). In the regular season, the Koivu-captained Canadiens had a 324-290-44-62 record, good enough for a .535 points percentage.
Ironically enough, the Canadiens finally made it to the Conference Final in 2009-10 after Koivu’s departure for the Anaheim Ducks. In their first season without a captain in their entire franchise existence, the Habs went on a memorable Cinderella run as the eighth seed, bowing out to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games in the Eastern Conference Final.
Next up at the helm was Brian Gionta, the first American to serve at least a full season as captain in franchise history. Gionta, a free agent signing prior to the 2009-10 season, was the captain for 2010-11 through 2013-14. In 242 games as captain, Gionta scored 69 goals and 127 points, a step back from his previous production in New Jersey and during his first season in Montreal. The Canadiens did make it back to the Eastern Conference Final in the last season of his tenure, though, this time losing to the New York Rangers with Carey Price injured during the final series.
After another vacant season in 2014-15, another American took the helm: Max Pacioretty. The team’s 2007 first-round pick had come off back-to-back 60-point seasons and was even named to the US Olympic team in 2014, cementing himself as one of the top players in the game at the time. He continued that production in his first two seasons as captain, rattling off 30-goal and 35-goal seasons, before taking a serious step back in 2017-18. His goal total dipped to just 17 in 64 games and he had just 37 points total on the year. The team also made just one playoff appearance with Pacioretty as captain, where he had just one assist in six games.
It turned out to be a captain-for-captain swap the following offseason, as a summer 2018 deal sent Pacioretty to the young Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for a package that included then-prospect Nick Suzuki. Four years later, Suzuki has cemented himself as the future of the franchise long-term with a captaincy and long-term extension in place.
In the bridge between Pacioretty and Suzuki, the now retired-due-to-injury Shea Weber served admirably in the meantime. His last act as captain will be remembered for years, leading the 16th-seeded Canadiens all the way through to the Stanley Cup Final in the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season before bowing out to career-ending injury.