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Ah, the pressure of being a #1 pick.
Since the Montreal Canadiens made the surprise decision not to pass Shane Wright to select Juraj Slafkovsky – a moment that shocked scouts and fans alike – the Slovakian forward has been the subject of considerable attention, and to rightly. But when Slafkovsky slowly started through the Buffalo Prospect Showcase and the preseason, fans started to worry.
Go to the present, and he has eight points in 21 games to launch his NHL career. He won’t win the Calder Trophy, but he’s been playing a bit better since being promoted to the line with Sean Monahan and Josh Anderson. Unsurprisingly, giving a goalscorer more ice time and better teammates can have its benefits – kind of like that Cole Caufield youngster last year, huh?
Of the 97 rookies to see playing time this season, Slafkovsky is 22nd in 5-on-5 with six points, and in the same spot with 1.66 of 60 points. So, indeed, nothing special offensively from him this year. , but then a lot of that can be attributed to his lack of game time early on. If we look at all four games since Dec. 1, he’s 17th at 2.42. Slafkovsky has scored in three of his last four games, and even though he hasn’t managed to save a shot in his last three, you can visually see him being more involved than he was in start of the season.
So he’s doing well, but there’s still a long way to go. But Slafkovsky’s improved game comes at an interesting time as general manager Kent Hughes must decide what to do with his best young striker. Slovakia have already revealed their initial roster at the World Junior Championship camp, made up of players based in Europe, while general manager Miroslav Satan has confirmed that fellow Canadians prospect Filip Mesar and New Jersey Devils prospect Simon Nemec will be heading to Eastern Canada for the Holidays.
All that’s missing is Slafkovsky.
According to a report by Arpon Basu of Athletic, Montreal executive vice-president Jeff Gorton said he doesn’t think Slafkovsky will be released if he « carries on as he does. » The Canadians still have eight games before the start of the tournament, so they have some time to work here, and so much can still change.
So, will the Canadians release him for the Christmas classic, or will things stay the same? Anyway, here’s a look at the pros and cons of sending it this year:
I will redirect you to my thoughts on why it was beneficial for Shane Wright, Dylan Guenther and Brandt Clarke to represent Canada. Game time is so important, and while Slafkovsky has finally seen a slight increase in recent games, he’s still sitting at an average ice time of 11:29. I completely agree that playing with NHL talent is much more beneficial than playing with juniors, but there has to be a clear game plan of what the Canadiens want to do with Slafkovsky over the next few weeks. Is he a mistake or two away from falling back into formation, or will he stay where he is?
If it’s the first, give it ice time at CMJ. The Slovaks had a terrible outing this summer and could use all the support they can get. The 2022 Slovak squad was supposed to be hugely promising with Slafkovsky, Nemec and Mesar leading the way among others. All three missed the event in August, but bringing them back into the fold would be huge to keep Slovakia in the top division, and maybe even steal a big win or two along the way like they did in road to a bronze medal in Beijing. Winter Olympics.
Slafkovsky was a central figure for the national team last year, leading the Olympics with seven goals en route to the MVP title. Going to the World Juniors would almost be like a step back, given his NHL experience. But like Wright, Clarke, or Guenther, it’s about getting some solid ice time, playing 20+ minutes a night, and being a critical contributor to a team again instead of just another body. in alignment. Ice time is critical, and while he’s starting to see more of it in the NHL, he’s not going to break the 20-minute mark like he would with Slovakia.
Representing your country is a huge honor, and Slafkovsky’s presence would be a huge boost for Slovaks. He would have plenty of playing time and the freedom to control plays and get creative, which he doesn’t have the same freedom to do in the NHL. A solid game can be a big confidence booster, and it’s finally starting to get it in Montreal, but it’s not like the Canadiens are making the playoffs this year. Offering him this experience would be a respectful gesture, if he agreed to go, of course.
Sending him would allow him to be a leader. If they find it valuable enough to outweigh the negatives, that could be a deciding factor here.
The success of Slovakia is not Montreal’s business, and I understand. The Habs want what’s best for Slafkovsky. You have to imagine they had his best interests in mind from the start, even though some of the roster decisions didn’t make sense. He still looks like a player trying to get comfortable, especially physically, and that’s best served with NHL-level training.
As Slafkovsky’s shifts have increased, so has his scoring chances, even if the sample size isn’t large. It builds a level of confidence as a shooter that you don’t want to mess with if you don’t have to. Having more capable teammates at his disposal means he doesn’t have to do so much every shift and can focus more on shooting to his strengths, and that’s shoot and place guys in high risk opportunities.
There’s also the injury factor, and it’s something the Chicago Blackhawks had to deal with when Kirby Dach nearly missed the entire 2020-21 season with an injury sustained in a pre-tournament game. I don’t think that’s a legitimate concern considering you can hurt yourself pretty much anywhere, and I think the positives far outweigh the negatives. But I also know that teams like to protect their assets as well as possible, and giving them to another team to take care of them is not always a favorable decision.
The biggest benefit is consistency, and pulling someone out of their new surroundings just when they feel comfortable can be a risky move. It’s not like he’s just adjusting to a new league – it’s a whole new lifestyle, and he’s made it to one of the biggest hockey markets in the world with a bilingual system . It’s a ton to adapt to if you’re not used to it. It might not make sense to retire it once it gains momentum.
So what should Montreal do?
Despite a slow start from Slafkovsky’s side, I don’t think the Canadiens should follow suit with Seattle, Arizona or Los Angeles and lean to keep him. The odds of Slovakia seriously contending for a medal are slim, so it’s not like he’s going for near-guaranteed gear like the Canadian stars. I like the idea of him being a leader in a team that needs it, and I will always be a fan of the players representing their country, especially when their presence is so important.
But at the same time, Slafkovsky’s situation is not like the others. He does not become a daily feature in the press gallery. In fact, he plays and he continues to improve week after week. Could he benefit from the WJC? Absolutely, but I’m not sure it’s worth sending him off for three weeks to play a few games, and only a few that might actually make sense to the youngster.
There are advantages to both decisions, but I would say keep it and let it develop at its own pace. He will have many opportunities to play for Slovakia at international level, and I would say the World Championship in May is much more valuable to him anyway.
But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be thrilled to see him in Moncton anyway.
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