with Justin Arsenault
Vol. 1 / Issue 1
October 3, 2022
with Justin Arsenault,
The Nelligan Review
What's Best For Slafkovsky, Is Best For The Habs
October 3, 2022
Since Juraj Slafkovsky was drafted #1 overall by the Montreal Canadiens in
the 2022 NHL draft, there has been an almost subliminal expectation that the imposing left winger would
start his NHL career at the age of 18. Many have linked his 1st overall draft pedigree, his abnormal strength,
dominance in the corners, to an almost seamless transition to the NHL.
The reality, however, is that the Montreal Canadians, as an organization, have historically rushed intergrating their high first round picks to the NHL (Doug Wickenheiser, Alex Galchenyuk, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi), risking their players’ long term potential for results, often as a protection mechanism against the constant onslaught of pressure from both the media, and the fanbase.
Now, for the first time in their history, Habs management find themselves liberated from the suffocating pressure of expectations, often demanding immediate results at all costs. Momentarily exempt from this pressure, Hughes and Gorton have the unique opportunity of a successful rebuild, with Slafkovsky being one of the principle pieces. This is why the undertaking of his development must be done carefully, but most importantly, wisely, in order to avoid the endless past developmental mistakes the Canadiens are known for.
When we look at Slafkovsky, a couple of things are evident: at 6’4” he’s a gargantuan player with a massive reach, combined with elite strength, puck protection, and physicality. He has above average top skating speed exhibiting a natural inclination to drive the play, often carrying the puck through the neutral zone in transition, while attempting to pierce the opposing defense with his good puck skills, and long reach. In the Finnish Liiga league, and in men’s international tournaments, we have seen his ability to create separation with stop and go moves and creative hands off the cycle, while finishing these sequences with nifty high danger slot passes, or his heavy shot. All of which, have contributed to his being compared to Jaromir Jágr.
Certain weaknesses, however, have surfaced during Slafkovsky’s first two preseason games. He’s shown difficulty making reads at higher speeds, at times causing him to create turnovers. His acceleration from a standstill also appears to be subpar for an NHL player. In this short sample size, his puck control, and his hands in general, have been discouraging to observe for a player picked so high. He will need to work on a quicker release to get his powerful shot off in the NHL where time and space are more difficult to come by. Attributes, that, if mastered, will allow him to create space and scoring chances in the NHL, putting him on track to be a potential 65 to 80 point player. However, it can’t be stressed enough, these skills need to be developed to a much higher degree than he has shown so far.
Although, we shouldn’t overact to these first two exhibition games, when looking at Slafkovsky’s overall potential as a player, certain questions do arise. Slafkovsky was never a consensus 1st overall pick in a draft that many have considered weak in comparison to previous drafts. He has shown glimpses of elite production as an 18 year-old during the world championships, however, many of his points were derived against weaker teams, obtained in a small sample size. His production in Liiga (a much bigger sample size) garnered him just 10 pts in 31 games. Kotkaniemi and Kaapo Kakko, two players that have yet to live up to their potential, scored 29 points in 57 games, and 38 points in 45 games, respectively, in their draft years in the same Finnish league. This is a notable difference in production that cannot be ignored, and demonstrates a worrisome lack of offensive output, especially when combined with his recent NHL outings. Slafkovsky needs to demonstrate that he can dominate at a lower level before plying his trade consistently in the best league in the world.
This is why the Finnish Liiga league, and not the NHL, would be best suited for Slafkovsky’s immediate development. He would benefit from more playing time, helping to develop his puck skills, while increasing his ability to create space through evasive maneuvers both off the rush, and the cycle. It would allow him to consistently dominate, while reinforcing neural pathways linked to skill development, in an environment with less pressure than Montreal. The AHL, too, could be viewed as an option, but perhaps not the best one, as the relentless Montreal media would still be felt by the youngster, while the temptation to yo-yo him between the AHL and the NHL might pose too great of a temptation for the Habs, deterring his development. Furthermore, the AHL is extremely competitive, and Slafkovsky’s creativity and daring, as well as offensive puck touches, might suffer. These are all elements that could differentiate the youngster from eventually becoming a 40 point scorer, or an 80 point first line star.
It is no coincidence that the Bleu Blanc Rouge’s most promising players both took similar routes of development, spending two years in lower level leagues. Suzuki with Guelph and Owen Sound of the OHL, and Caufield with the Wisconsin Badgers of the NCAA. Both of whom are on track to consistently hit 70 or more points in their next few years with the Habs. It is crucial, therefore, that Slafkovsky must not suffer through a Galchenyuk or Kotkaniemi-like accelerated development plan.
For the Habs, a team clearly in rebuild mode, to not take their time with Slafkovsky’s proper development, would be inexcusable. As an organization, the Montreal Canadiens love to revel in their long, successful history, but now, they must learn from the somber dark corners of their more recent past.
Let’s hope they do.