The Real Slim Slaffy Stood Tall
October 7, 2022
By Grant McCagg
“Will the real Slim Slaffy please stand up?”
Oh – last night he stood up alright. Juraj Slafkovsky stood out in many ways in Montreal’s second last exhibition game of the preseason, leaving little doubt about where he will start the season. He will be at the Bell Centre on opening night.
Slafkovsky came out flying from the very first shift and helped draw three penalties in the first 25 minutes, two of them directly.
His reward? Zero power-play time. And that’s fine. They managed his ice time last night and were rewarded with his best game of the exhibition season. He had lots of jump in his step from the first shift until the last. No worries about speed, balance, or falling down…his stamina and skating were fine throughout the match. More than fine. That’s the Slaf I expected to see at some point this exhibition season. Confident, powerful, aggressive and fast.
By this point in training camp in years past, you could name 75 percent of the forward lines and defence pairing with ease. This year, it’s all up in the air, especially when it comes to Slafkovsky, who has played with Dvorak, Anderson, Pitlick, Hoffman, Suzuki, Caufield, Armia and Dach. He looked most comfortable with Dvorak and Anderson, so perhaps they start the season as a trio. They certainly provide a heaviness to their game that the club hasn’t had since the playoff line of Joel Armia, Eric Staal and Corey Perry, and if they are kept together, they will pose nightmares for opposing defencemen along the wall.
A lot of factors go into the decision on whether to keep an 18-year-old on an NHL team to start the season. Coaches and management want to see progression during camp, and it’s fair to say that they’ve seen that from Slafkovsky, with two of his last three games being his best ones by far. The Leafs’ game sandwiched in between wasn’t as good but he was playing back-to-back at this level for the first time. You can be as prepared as much as possible for such a task mentally but your body still isn’t used to it, and his legs were clearly rubbery on the second night midway through the game. Despite that, he finished off that game strongly, and then last night was a force from start to finish.
In that second game of the back-to-backs, Slafkovsky played more than 22 minutes. Last night after a couple of days of rest, he played just over 13, and it was clear to see that he had a lot more speed and endurance.
Can Slafkovsky help the club? Indeed, he can. So far in his five exhibition games and almost 87 minutes of ice time, there have only been three or four times when he made an ill-advised play His play away from the puck has been decent so far, and it will only improve as he continues learning and adapting.
He gets grief from some for “always having one hand on the stick”, and from the 80 or so games I’ve seen him play over the past two years, I don’t see it as a negative. First of all, he doesn’t ALWAYS have one hand on the stick. It is usually when he’s going to check someone, and he actually uses it to his advantage on many occasions with his reach and strength. He often knocks the puck away from opponents with just one hand on the stick, and it extends his reach when he does it.
He gets his stick on many pucks that you wouldn’t think he’d be able to reach thanks to his speed, reach and strength. He should keep on doing whatever he’s doing, and don’t try to change that part of his game, as he uses it to his advantage far more often than he doesn’t. It would be akin to goalie coaches taking Dominik Hasek aside 20 years ago and preaching to him to stop dropping his stick before making unbelievable saves, or to play a certain style.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There are always exceptions to every hockey rule, and Slaf is an exception. This isn’t a 5-9, 170 pounder skating around with one hand on his stick…this is a man-child.
Much like with Arber Xhekaj on defence, a big reason why Slafkovsky can help the club is his size and strength. With the exception of Anderson and Armia if/when he plays, there isn’t a lot of size on the wings.
What we saw far too often in his first four exhibition games was tentativeness. He was watching the play and not moving his feet – afraid to be in the wrong spot or to do the wrong thing. By Game 5, that lack of confidence was long gone. He drove through checks along the boards, he carried the puck through the neutral zone with zeal and power, he used his puck protection skills to hold onto pucks until he could make the right play.
Clearly, Slafkovsky was told by the coaching staff that he needed to play a simpler game with less thinking and more reacting. His very first puck touch, he tipped it into the Ottawa zone and went hard after the defenceman, letting him know that he was in for a long, heavy night:
On his second shift, Slaf supported his two defencemen, and when they were beaten for what could have been a clear breakaway, Slaf was in the right position and skated back hard to thwart the opportunity:
Shane Pinto is already a solid, two-way center with decent size and strength. Look at Slaf use his own size and strength to bounce him out of the play twice and allow Dvorak and Anderson to keep cycling the puck:
The Canadiens aren’t dealing with a Nikita Scherbak when it comes to winning a puck battle along the boards to get the puck out of his zone. Slaf is already above-average at the NHL level in that regard, and it’s one of the most important things that a young winger can do to keep a spot in the lineup and gain his coach’s trust:
Here was an instance where it was apparent that Slaf is still adjusting to the speed and smarts of NHL players. A lazy pass into the middle of the ice in the neutral zone can cost you dearly, and luckily his errant pass didn’t end up in the back of the net. One of the few glaring errors he has made so far:
The Habs ended up on the power play from this shift, and the main reason was because of Slafkovsky’s solid work along the boards. I don’t know if Pinto was asked about how it felt to face Slaf last night but he got a pretty fair introduction to his size and strength in the first period. Slaf powered through him along the boards and then did a great spin move on Brannstrom to maintain possession and feed the puck to the slot, where Dvorak was tripped. He added insult to injury after the ref’s hand went up by stapling Pinto into the boards:
He starts this shift off by making two solid defensive plays, and then when he gets the puck along the wall he powers past Thomas Chabot and wheels the puck to the front of the net where it misses everyone. The right play – and if it finds a teammate’s stick, it is a glorious scoring opportunity:
The way Slafkovsky took this pass off of his skate yet stayed onside, powered through two defenders, then, with two guys draped all over him, made that pass to Anderson that should have been put in the net….was a glimpse of why he went first overall. His physical skills at 18 years of age are a rarity indeed:
This shift had some good and bad. He starts it off by tipping a poor pass into the zone to avoid an icing call. A little later on he gets the puck at his own blueline and is under pressure so he quickly dumps it to the Ottawa blueline. The Canadiens lost possession but it was the safe play to make under the circumstance. Then he gets the puck in his own zone and makes a risky pass into the slot that ends up working out okay but is never recommended. Marty and co. will be showing him that play in the video room I’m sure and asking him to refrain from doing it in the future:
This shift shows off his high IQ level. He gets the puck on his opposite wing along the wall, sees Zaitsev closing in on him and instead of trying to slap it past him along the boards, he goes the other way and makes a great backhand carom pass off the boards to his defenceman. Then he gets on his high horse and comes very close to tipping the puck past the Ottawa defenceman for what may have been a breakaway opportunity. He swept at the puck with one hand on his stick, and it wouldn’t have been possible with both hands on his stick. Over the past year, I have seen him come away with the puck on many occasions sweeping it away with one hand on his stick along the boards because of his reach, strength and quickness. As mentioned earlier – don’t try to fix what ain’t broken. It didn’t work on this occasion but it came very close to resulting in a breakaway and there was no harm whatsoever in trying:
Here’s another instance where he utilizes his one-hand sweep check on Stutzle, and it enables Dvorak to get the puck to Slaf, who then tries to saucer a pass to Anderson. It comes back to Slaf and he puts a nice pass on Anderson’s stick the second time around but he goes offside:
This is by no means a “wow” moment but it impressed me nevertheless. Slaf’s quick chip pass to Anderson was perfectly executed and done quickly. It demonstrated both his vision and IQ. Slaf is an underrated passer:
Nothing came of this play but Slaf did a really nice job of receiving this pass without going offside, and then shows off his power on #14 by driving right past him. He is going to be so hard to handle when he is 22:
These are the plays where anyone who has posed concerns with Slafkovsky’s skating should be satisfied that he is going to have no issues at the NHL level. Power, speed and agility were all on display on this rush. Brannstrom didn’t have a hope in hell of checking the puck off of him in open ice. He makes a nice backhand pass to Kaiden Guhle and then when he gets the puck behind the net has the poise and vision to take a quick look before touching the puck and then finding the open man Barron at the point:
This is something we are going to see from Slafkovsky on many occasions in the NHL as he did it frequently against men last season as well. He just kept his body pinned along the wall as he approached the defenceman Anton Zub and powered right through him, gaining possession of the puck in the process and spinning away from #27 Dylan Gambrell twice before making a terrific pass to Evans in the slot. Slafkovsky ended the night with one assist but quite easily could have had two or three with a little more finish from linemates:
This may not seem like anything of significance but I liked this little play from Slaf. He is skating backward, takes a glance over to see if the defenceman Brannstron is pinching in, and continues skating backward all of the way to the boards to try to cut him off. I can’t say that I’ve seen many wingers do that. It demonstrated his agility and his vision, and he forced Brannstrom to pass the puck to the Canadiens instead of a teammate. I have no doubt in my mind that Slaf could play the odd shift on defence if asked to do so. He finishes the shift once again displaying his speed. There are no issues in that regard for me:
His assist on Anderson’s goal demonstrated his puck protection skill and vision. When he does land on the top line with Caufield and Suzuki on a permanent basis he is going to get a pile of assists:
Slaf’s agility on this play frankly blows me away. Eighteen-year-old 238-pound teenagers are not supposed to be able to move like that. The spray he puts off when he stops gives you an indication of the power that is emanating from his tree trunk legs. Anyone who suggests he has skating issues isn’t watching very closely:
Here is another example of Slaf making an effective play with one hand on his stick. He stops the pass getting to Claude Giroux, and wouldn’t have been able to do so with two hands on his stick:
This is perhaps the best example of how powerfully he can skate. He fakes going forward and reverses the play, making a great quick pass to his dman and then showing off the incredible speed he can generate on his turns, getting open for the give-and-go and leaving #27 Gambrell in his dust. He gets checked at center ice but wow – his skating last night was impressive:
Slaf with nice eye-hand coordination batting this puck down and managing to get it into the Ottawa zone:
Slafkovsky’s speed, reach and stickhandling ability are all quite apparent in this sequence, then he powers past yet another defender along the wall and chips it to a linemate. Zub is a very good defender but he was helpless in slowing down the 18-year-old. The future is definitely bright for the first overall pick:
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