Juraj Slafkovsky is unquestionably one of the most talented players available in the 2022 NHL Draft class. The combination of his size, skill, shot, and versatility makes him unique, and his ceiling is tantalizingly high for scouts and observers alike.
Still, whenever Slafkovsky is brought up in the context of the first overall selection, there is one massive elephant in the room: 10 points in 31 games. That is what Slafkovsky put up in his draft year playing with TPS in Liiga.
It is a number that not only pales in comparison to the most recent high-profile wingers (or centres who played as wingers during their draft-eligible year) from the Liiga such as Patrik Laine and Kaapo Kakko, but it is one that fails to stack up against players with much less fanfare such as Mikko Rantanen and yes, Jesperi Kotkaniemi. It is even one that is dwarfed by players in his own draft class such as Joakim Kemell.
Furthermore, Slafkovsky’s Liiga performance is rarely brought up when discussing the player in the context of the first overall selection and how he compares to the likes of Shane Wright and Logan Cooley. As an illustration of this, Sportsnet’s highlight montage of Slafkovsky following his selection featured only the blue and white of the Slovakian National Team, with the black and white of TPS nowhere to be seen.
What, then, should we make of Slafkovsky’s Liiga track record? Is it something to be downplayed in light of the Slovak’s performances in his national colours? Is it the forest that Kent Hughes and company are choosing not to see? Or is there a third option, where Slafkovsky’s Liiga games fit in with his international play in order to create a cohesive trajectory for the developing youngster?
Slafkovsky’s season, domestic and international, can be roughly divided into two halves. He started the 2021-22 campaign at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup with the Slovakian U18 National Team, before joining TPS’s U20 academy team in the U20 SM-sarja, Finland’s top-flight Junior hockey league. Nine points in five games at the Hlinka followed by 18 points in 11 games in the U20 SM-sarja demonstrated how Slafkovsky had outgrown age-restricted competitions, and so he joined the main club for the third game of their regular season.
Slafkovsky’s first 20 games at the professional level were — to put it mildly — underwhelming. Four points (one goal) in 21 games in a professional men's league is a palmarès perhaps befitting of a borderline top-10 prospect, but not one that could challenge the top spot. Despite this, Slafkovsky was selected to the Slovak National Team for the 2022 Winter Olympics. He wasn’t immediately thrust into a key role, but two goals against eventual gold medalists Finland in Slovakia’s opening game caught everyone’s attention — 12:57 against Finland became 13:39 against Sweden, which became 15:16 in the first knockout stage game against Germany. By the time Slafkovsky’s brace against Sweden propelled Slovakia to their first ever hockey medal, he was playing 17:17 on the team’s first line.
When he returned to Finland for the final 10 games of the Liiga regular season, the difference was night and day. Four points in 21 games (0.87 points per 60 minutes TOI) became six points in 10 games (2.20 P/60). The playoffs were more of the same: seven points in 18 matches as part of TPS’s run to the final (1.51 P/60). Combining the post-Olympics regular season and the playoffs, Slafkovsky put up 13 points in 28 games, or 1.76 P/60.
These numbers still fall below the numbers put up by the Kakkos and Laines, but at least put Slafkovsky into Rantanen and Kotkaniemi territory. This shifts the narrative considerably: instead of a player who is perceived to struggle in league play but excel in brief flashes, Slafkovsky becomes a very good player in league play who is accentuated by international flashes of brilliance.
Does that justify Slafkovsky’s first overall selection? Not necessarily. Even with this contextualization, Shane Wright’s track record to this date is still more impressive. What this contextualization does is show that Slafkovsky has displayed evidence of impressive upward trajectory during the course of this season alone, which in turn strikes directly at one of Wright’s perceived weaknesses — stagnation at the OHL level.
Hughes and his team are banking that Slafkovsky’s trajectory gives him a higher ceiling than Wright, and that the Montreal Canadiens have a developmental plan to allow the Slovak youngster to reach this ceiling. Slafkovsky’s uniqueness is also likely attractive to Hughes. While the general manager can view Kirby Dach, Nick Suzuki, and Owen Beck as adequate consolation for Wright’s absence, Slafkovsky offers a potential fusion of Cole Caufield and Josh Anderson that has been lacking from the Canadiens roster since Max Pacioretty’s departure (and arguably even before that).
If you’re a pessimist, Slafkovsky’s selection represents “risk”. If you’re an optimist, Slafkovsky’s selection represents “potential”. Both of these perspectives are sides of the same coin, and combined they show two things: first, that Hughes is willing to sacrifice known value in order to potentially capitalize on unknown value, and; second, Hughes possesses some level of faith in what he has available to him, to compensate for the lost known value, and to bring out the fullest extent of the unknown value.
As with most draft-related conversations, only time will decide whether Hughes is vindicated or scorned, not just for his selection, but for his faith in his own development capabilities.