One of the top stories of the 2022 World Junior Hockey Championship was the strength of the team from Slovakia. After years of looking like they were slipping from contention among the top hockey nations in the world, they had amassed a great group of talent for for the tournament that began (and prematurely ended) in December of 2021.
The Montreal Canadiens selected one of the three players who were projecting to be first-round picks in that tournament when they chose Juraj Slafkovsky first overall, following his exceptional performance at at top two men’s international tournaments this season. Another went one pick later when the New Jersey Devils picked defenceman Simon Nemec. Then at 26, Montreal grabbed the third one off the board by selecting Filip Mesar at 26th.
Slafkovsky had addressed a pressing need as an offensive left-winger, while Mesar was more of a want as a right-winger with high upside. Montreal already had several players at that position in the organization, and can easily run with their group of Cole Caufield, Josh Anderson, and Brendan Gallagher on the right flank for years to come. However, with reports that the team was looking to trade Anderson, and Gallagher not exactly being a rebuild piece at 30 years of age, the Mesar pick was made with the future in mind.
It will be a few more years before Mesar is even an option to make the jump to the top league, unlike Slafkovsky who might be in the Canadiens’ opening-night lineup come October.
One of his most obvious abilities when watching him is his speed on the ice. He’s rated as one of the very best skaters in the entire 2022 draft class, with great lateral mobility to boot, so he can blow past defenders. Couple that with very strong puck-handling skills and great work ethic, and you get a promising transition player.
Once he’s flown into the zone, however, and those skills become less important in compressed space, his offensive games isn’t at the same level. His awareness of his surroundings while skating at speed isn’t high enough to pick out teammates, and his circuitous routes through the neutral zone make it difficult for linemates to time their runs and gain the zone with him, a lot like what we’ve seen with Jonathan Drouin in his time in Montreal.
Mesar usually has to fire off a shot when he meets a defenceman with no forwards to help him out, and his shot isn’t particularly dangerous from range. He is at his best with space to work with, or when defenders are forced to stop and wait for him to make a move, which is a tough situation for them versus such a shifty forward. Some of his best offensive plays were the result of pulling off a quick move in open space near the net, but the question for him is how many of those opportunities he would have in the NHL.
The Canadiens are banking on him working on his rush abilities using his energy to build off just being a good transition winger to one who can at least survive some pressure long enough to scan his options and pass the puck to dangerous areas if he can’t drive through opponents himself. He will have a bit more of the space he needs on the power play, but to truly reach his potential he would need to produce offence at even strength. With a bit of time to take in the play around him, his playmaking skills become effective as he moves quicker than the opponent guarding him, so as long as he’s not contained by a larger player along the boards, he can use his feet and hands to distribute the puck.
He has good discipline on defence, patrolling passing lanes and trying to break up passes with his stick, but he’s not the type of player who is going to march into the corner for a puck battle, overwhelm an attacker, and come away with the puck. He’ll be most valuable in the defensive end as the player who leads the breakout, so he will need linemates who are more adept at the physical elements. He’s good at keeping himself as a passing option for teammates carrying the puck, which will be handy to collect passes from his defencemen, but it’s a skill that he won’t use often if he’s the one on his line doing to carrying.
Mesar needs more time versus pros to figure out tricks to overcome larger defencemen and work on his body to get stronger to keep possession when he enters a battle and make his shot more dangerous. That could be a test he fails, so there’s a high possibility that Mesar never joins his compatriot in Montreal, and that’s the gamble Kent Hughes took in making this selection, but there could be a skilled middle-six NHL winger at the end of a long road if he does succeed.