No matter which way you look at it, and no matter what your expectations were, Juraj Slafkovský’s 2022-23 season was underwhelming. The Slovak forward, taken first overall in the 2022 NHL Draft, played his season in the National Hockey League, scoring four goals and adding six assists in 39 games before an injury ended his rookie year.
It’s easy to forget now, but at the time of the draft, no one was expecting him to play the most NHL games from the draft class right away. He was seen as the longer-term project rather than the player to make an immediate impact in the NHL.
His production was not great, but it matched his scoring numbers in Liiga from a year prior in eight more games, which shows progress considering the higher difficulty of the situation he was in.
For many people, the issue isn’t what Slafkovský did, but what he wasn’t given the opportunity to do. You could argue whether being in the NHL and seeing what needed to improve was better for his development or if he would have been better off going to a lower level and dominating the scoresheets. Regardless of which side of that debate you are on, there’s no doubt that the latter option would have given him a better chance of holding his ranking from a year ago.
There seemed to be a pretty clear top-five for most of the voting panel, with Slafkovský being part of that group for eight of the 12 votes, including the EOTP community vote. The other four votes covered the rest of the top-eight spots. Four of the votes had him exactly at #5, with three more having him at #4 and my lone vote at #3.
While there was a lot of movement around Slafkovský, I kept him in the exact same spot he occupied in my ranking and in the overall ranking a year ago. Despite better seasons from others last year, I haven’t seen anything to change my outlook of his upside. That being said, it also doesn’t bother me to see two additional players ahead of him in the overall ranking.
Slafkovský was third on last year’s list, tying the top debut for a first-round pick in these rankings (Alex Galchenyuk, 2012). He drops two spots this year.
History of #5
Make no mistake, Slafkovský’s strength and the reason he went first overall was his combination of size and skill. A lot of the talk about size comes with height, but there’s a lot more to him than his tall frame. He is also one of the heavier players in the organization.
The potential for him to be a physically imposing player who has the ability to control the puck and make stick plays earned him his top draft position last summer. That is a rare combination that isn’t easily found in hockey players, let alone one who is entering his age-19 season.
It feels like forever ago, but his first NHL goal is a good example of what he could become. First he takes a hit, but his frame allows him to stay on his feet. He pins the wall on the forecheck and creates a turnover. His reach allows him to corral the puck, which he controls on the pivot and then fires past the goaltender.
Then he shows the other part of his game that is a little more under the radar: He’s confident enough to yell at the player who tried to knock him down at the beginning of the play.
While the upside in Slafkovský’s game is obvious, the main concern is whether he will manage to put it all together consistently. Basically, that question is the difference between his ceiling and his floor at the NHL level.
One thing that happened a lot last season was that he often seemed to be caught off-balance or unaware by opposing defenders. Maybe it was adjusting to the smaller ice full-time, maybe it was adjusting to the speed of the NHL. Likely it was a bit of both, but Slafkovský’s spatial awareness needs to be better, otherwise he will continue to put himself in vulnerable positions. No matter how big you are, if people are running into you, it will affect how productive you can be, never mind the obvious injury risk.
After almost 40 NHL games and a full off-season of training, it will be interesting to see what changes come up when camp starts next month.
The biggest change with the current management and development team of the Montreal Canadiens is the realization that development doesn’t stop at the NHL level. From coaches specializing in skill improvement to a head coach who is focused on improving, young players are going to be well surrounded.
Slafkovský’s season has become a lightning rod for different development paths. There are those who feel he should have played at a lower level and those who feel he should learn what he needs to improve by experiencing it. The difference between Slafkovský and previous young players thrown into the NHL at a young age is the message.
While he did see his ice time drop at times, it wasn’t performance-driven. At no point was the lowering ice time a punishment or disciplinary. At no point did you hear anyone in the organization say how they wish he would score more while playing fourth-line minutes. The organization was very hands-on with his development, and admitted they were looking into his path forward before he got injured.
This season, the expectation is that Slafkovský takes a step forward at the NHL level. There are many combinations possible for the team out of training camp, and Slafkovský will let the team know what situations he is ready for based on his play.
His upside could see him eventually become the third piece of a Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield trio, but it was a place that the Canadiens didn’t dare to put him last season. Now a year older, it will be interesting to see whether that combination gets a look. But there are other spots, whether with Kirby Dach or Sean Monahan at centre, that would be good fits as well.
Before Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes made Slafkovský the selection, he said the organization was looking for the best player in five years, not the best player at 18. It’s important to remember that even at 19, he is still a work in progress.
He has done a lot of work this off-season to come back as a better player and continue his progression. After being drafted, he told the media that he hoped the Canadiens fans would like him one day. A solid second season will go a long way toward doing just that.
Tomas Prokop of Dennik Sport joins Patrik Bexell on the latest episode of the podcast. Tomas’s knowledge of Slovak hockey is second to none, and with Slafkovský’s lengthy stay in Slovakia for rehab and summer training, it makes for an interesting take on Slafkovský’s off-season.