By JD Lagrange – When the Montreal Canadiens surprised everyone and selected Juraj Slafkovsky first overall, I was one of the few who had him ranked number one. I am not saying that to toot my own horn, far from there, but rather to say that I have been on his side for a long time. So what I will be touching on in this article is nothing against the first overall pick of 2022 NHL Draft and I still believe that he was the right selection.
With that out of the way, I have to say that I am very disappointed with the way this new management group has handled the young man in this, his first pro season. Of course, I do trust that they are professionals and that they know what they’re doing and I cross my fingers that their choices will be the right ones.
A lot to learn
But listening to Canadiens’ GM Kent Hughes talk about the young man and the decisions that they’ve made about him, he didn’t come across as overly confident of having made the right ones about his jewel prospect, for his development.
Hughes compared it to fixing the foot steps of an individual. If you focus on just that, one should be able to do it. Then added that if you asked that person to juggle three balls while focussing on his foot steps, it becomes more complicated. He continued his analogy by saying that it’s like walking on the highway while juggling three balls and not to get hit by a car. In other words, he’s saying that the kid has a lot to learn and they’re focussing on one aspect at a time.
“In Juraj’s case, what we’re trying to do is to help him understand how he can be most successful here in North America”, said Hughes. “And that’s not necessarily natural to him. So we believe his development will happen in stages.”
Fine, I get that. But that doesn’t address the reasons why he wasn’t sent to the AHL at any point this season. That doesn’t justify not sending him spend time with his buddies Filip Mesar and Simon Nemec at the World Junior Championships to apply what he has learned, against other teenagers his age. I mean, it was okay to send Shane Wright, whom everyone saw as the consensus number one pick, but it wasn’t okay for Slafkovsky? In my mind, it makes little sense.
As we know, Slafkovsky is part of the incredible string of casualties of players injured on the Canadiens and he will be missing a lot of time. This will inevitably slow down his development further. One would have to be a fool to blame the organization for his injury. It’s a physical contact sport and the young Slovak could have been hurt anywhere he played, at whatever level it might be.
But one of the reasons we could read about those against sending Slafkovsky to the AHL was that he could get hurt playing in the minors. I’m sure you’ve read that too, if you’re on social media. So much for that theory, right? Sometimes, it’s just too easy to debunk narratives…
So here’s where Slafkovsky sits in this, his first pro season in North America.
I will be the first to warn you about not putting too much emphasis on his offensive statistics. There are plenty of examples out there of top NHL players who have started very slow in their first few seasons. I wanted to show the stats as it’s part of the big picture, but there are other aspects to consider as well.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda
Hindsight is always 20-20. There was no issue in letting Slafkovsky start the season in Montreal. Checking into camp at 6-foot 3-inches and 238 lbs, he was physically able to sustain playing even against the bigger men in the NHL. I was never one to agree to send him back to Europe, in Liiga, a very defensive-minded league. Plus, he needed to learn the North American style, on smaller ice surfaces. And keeping him in Montreal to start allowed them to see where he was at in his development, and determine what he needed to work on. So far, so good.
Where I disagree was to keep him with the big club as long as they did. For one thing, playing 11-12 minutes a game for a guy used to playing big minutes is not ideal. By playing him on the fourth line with grinders, with little to no power play time, instead of in a more offensive role, is not putting him in a position to succeed. You teach him to be a grinder, he will be… a grinder. How many times did he make plays on that fourth line, that were botched by a grinder like Michael Pezzetta or Jake Evans, or by a disinterested veteran like Evgenii Dadonov or Mike Hoffman? When Nick Suzuki was sent to the fourth line in his first year, he had Nate Thompson, a quality veteran, teaching him the ropes.
I personally would have liked to see him play segments of 10 games or so between the NHL and the Laval Rocket in the AHL. Teach him a few things, then send him down to work on them. Call him up and see how it translates to the NHL game, fix and teach a few more things, and send him back down. After all, Laval is only 30 minutes from Montreal so development coach Adam Nicolas can easily make the drive, no?
Another huge missed opportunity by the Canadiens’ brass was, in my opinion, not allowing Slafkovsky to play at the World Junior Championships tournament which was held close by, in the Maritimes. We sometimes forget that in spite of his imposing stature, he’s an 18 year-old kid in that big body.
Sending him would have been for the physical aspect of the game of course, applying what he has learned this season and apply it at a big slower level, against kids his age (or a year older as most are 19). But more than that, I would have sent him for the psychological aspect. And that, to me, is just as important.
Not only would it have given him a break from the grind of the NHL and tougher competition, he would have also been able to spend the holiday season with his best friends, Filip Mesar and Simon Nemec. Yes, he’s been away from home since he was 14, but he’s much further from home this time around, in North America. We, as fans, tend to take this for granted, ignoring the psychological impact it has on an 18 year-old kid.
He could have come back rejuvenated, mentally fresh and ready to make a push. Let’s also not forget that hockey-wise, he’s been playing above his age level for a long time. The last time he’s been in a true leadership role was likely back at the midget level (or equivalent in Europe).
Admittedly, I don’t have all of the answers. In fact, it would be pretty presumptuous of myself to pretend that I do. But like everyone else following the game closely, I do have plenty of ideas and opinions. And this is just that: an opinion, a vision, an idea, based on my personal experience but also, after seeing not one, but two third overall picks flop in Montreal. I’m starting to see a pattern, even with a different management group, and red flags are slowly popping up in my head. I’m hoping to be wrong and trust that this new management group knows what they’re doing. They simply cannot afford to screw up with this pick.