When Bob McKenzie published his mid-season draft rankings in January, Juraj Slafkovský was fifth on the list that is aggregated from various scouts around the NHL. The winger hadn’t looked particularly impressive while playing in the Finnish Liiga, with a total of four points (1G, 3A) through 20 games at the time the article was published.
Slafkovský’s work at the Junior level showed too much promise for him to slip down the order too far. He had been held pointless just two times in 12 games in the SM-sarja, Finland’s under-20 league, after posting nine points (3G, 6A) in five games at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup leading up to his draft season.
His showing at that summer under-18 tournament foreshadowed what his season would be like at the international level. He started to draw more attention three weeks after McKenzie’s mid-season update when the Winter Olympics began.
In the first game in Beijing, played against Team Finland, Slafkovský scored both of Slovakia’s goals in a 6-2 loss. He also had goals in the next two games versus Sweden and Latvia. He opened the scoring versus Team USA in a quarter-final match the Slovaks won in a shootout, and while his club fell to the Finns a second time in the semifinals, it did manage to defeat Sweden in the Bronze Medal Game, when Slafkovský scored two final times to bring his Olympics tally up to seven.
Another three goals and six assists at the World Championship to wrap up his season solidified his status as a big-stage performer, and allayed some concerns about what he’d done in league play.
There were several other good players available when the Montreal Canadiens walked up to the podium on July 7 to make the first overall selection in the 2022 NHL Draft. Shane Wright was largely expected to be the name the Habs called, but there was another centre, Logan Cooley, who was also highly regarded, and an impressive pair of defencemen, Simon Nemec and David Jiricek, who could have earned that selection as well. But the scouting and management staff liked Slafkovský the best, making him the franchise’s choice at number one.
Eleven of the 12 ballots have Slafkovský as a top-four player under the age of 25 in the organization a couple of months removed from that somewhat surprising selection. The majority has him at number three, though five panellists have him behind 2020 first-round selection Kaiden Guhle on their ballots.
History of #3
The most obvious trait as Slafkovský made his way to the stage in front of the Bell Centre crowd was his size. He became the largest forward in the organization upon his selection, standing 6’3” and weighing in at 238 pounds on the most recent training camp update, eclipsing the 227-pound Josh Anderson.
There is a bit more to the game of hockey than just being big, however. A player needs to understand how to use his frame to his benefit, or it can become a hindrance to his play. The Habs’ previous lottery selection, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, was of similar height but was easily toppled in physical altercations. Slafkovský is much more stable on his skates, able to contend with large opponents, and that is the solid base of his entire game.
His work is exceptional along the boards, where he wins his battles more often than not, demanding possession of the puck and using his mass and long reach to keep opponents at bay. Deft hands make it more unfair for defenders trying to win the puck back as he can quickly pull it to areas they can’t reach to escape his position on the perimeter and work to more dangerous areas.
He likes to drive through the middle of the ice to create chances, which his imposing frame and stickhandling ability allow him to do. He was criticized for doing that perhaps a bit too much in the recent rookie tournament, but there are few players in the organization who have the willingness and ability to pull that off that it was encouraging to see a player at least making the attempt, and it should open up different looks for the offence if it gets incorporated into the team’s attack.
Despite ticking off many of the boxes on the power-forward checklist, Slafkovský’s offensive game is more about playmaking than finishing. He is an excellent distributor of the puck, with the hands to make crisp, accurate passes. He shows good awareness in the offensive zone to find teammates and makes quick reads when pulling out of a corner with newly won possession for quick-strike opportunities.
Backing up all of these skills is a confidence not often seen in prospects. He’s fully aware of how effective his skill set is, and anecdotal reports have that self-assuredness as one of the factors that led Montreal to choose him over the other options for the top pick.
The one element that scouts identified as lacking in his toolkit was his skating ability. He has an inefficient stride that sees a lot of wasted movement and energy. It’s something he worked on through his draft year, and there were several shifts at the rookie showcase in Buffalo when he showed incredible closing speed to win footraces for the puck. It seems that the deficiencies are more due to a lack of proper technique than any physiological limitations, so if development coach Adam Nicholas can refine the stride and convert more of the energy into gaining speed and changing direction quickly, Slafkovský could become a real offensive force.
It may take a bit more work to get his defensive game to a similar level. He hasn’t yet formed the habits of a quality defender to keep track of his surroundings, get into the ideal position, and pick the best time to engage an attacker. Those are things that can be taught if he’s willing to put in the work, and his size and reach should allow him to have some level of success while those other talents progress.
There is the potential for Slafkovský to become a great player, but managing expectations will be important for him — and every other top prospect from the 2022 draft class. None of the players were regarded as future franchise cornerstones; Wright, in our mock draft selection from days before the draft, was chosen knowing his ceiling may be that of a second-line centre (while we also believed that his floor wasn’t a great deal lower than that). Slafkovský isn’t guaranteed to become a top-line winger in the NHL.
He may be more of a complementary piece for an offensive line, a player who grinds in the dirty areas to get pucks for teammates who otherwise couldn’t. He’ll aid the cycle game and help to get the puck from the perimeter of the offensive zone to the middle of the ice.
That just happens to be a skill set that Montreal’s top two players (spoiler alert), Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki, don’t possess. Both are gifted offensive players, but not when they also have to engage in board battles. If this is the trio that Martin St. Louis elects to run when Slafkovský makes the team, offensive-zone presences will look something like the Slovak battling with a defenceman in the corner while Suzuki and Caufield try to find some open space for scoring chances once he has the puck.
With Slafkovský’s skill set, he could play on a variety of line configurations, and any role would be an option if his defensive game improves. At the very least he could become a bottom-six checking winger who attempts to keep the puck 200 feet from his net, but there’s too much offensive skill for him not to carve out a more impactful role.
The current question is when he’ll be slotted into such a role at the NHL level. The Canadiens haven’t had a great deal of success with recent high draft selections, and they’ll want to make sure that Slafkovský’s development is handled correctly. Maybe that ultimately means getting accustomed to the pace of the NHL right away, or perhaps it means spending the majority of the season in the AHL to grow his pro game before making that jump. We’ll get a first real indication of where his game is when he gets into pre-season action in the coming days.
We managed to get a fantastic guest on today’s podcast; Timo Kunnari from Iltalehti (Finland’s biggest newspaper). Timo watched Slafkovský close last year, and reached out to his contacts within TPS before the podcast to give us a better understanding of last season’s performance: