What to do with Slafkovsky…
September 27, 2022
By Grant McCagg
Many folks are overreacting to Slafkovsky not getting a pile of scoring chances or scoring a goal through his first few scrimmages and one NHL exhibition game. Never mind the three assists…where are the daily hat tricks?
It’s a process. Whether you are drafted first overall or 200th, making the final step to the NHL is a doozy.
Some of the greatest European forwards ever are Sundin, Jagr, Ovechkin, Malkin, Forsberg, and Selanne. What do they all have in common? None played in North America in their draft years.
High picks from Europe in recent drafts who did play right away include Aleksandr Barkov, Kappo Kakko, Tim Stutzle, Leon Draisaitl, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Elias Lindholm, Valeri Nichushkin and Andrei Svechnikov. The top rookie scorer out of that group was Svechnikov with 37 points.
The only European in recent times to make the NHL in his draft year and produce good numbers was Patrik Laine, and he was a freak of nature with his shot. Laine was MVP of the Liiga playoffs at 17, so it came as no surprise that he produced right away. He is the lone exception.
You can tell that Slaf is trying to find his bearings offensively on the smaller ice with unfamiliar linemates facing NHL-calibre defencemen. He’s not always sure where to go, and what to do when he has the puck.
Guess what? All of the players mentioned above went through the same thing. Draisaitl had two goals and nine points in his rookie year before being sent back to junior. He was big enough, he was skilled enough…but the NHL is the pre-eminent league, and he needed time.
Unless he ends up playing the entire season with Caufield and Suzuki, expect Slafkovsky to score somewhere in the neighbourhood of 25-40 points. And then expect a lot of people to refer to him as a bust – because that’s what people do – overreact to “the now” without looking at past history.
Some will say that this is why he should start the season in the AHL, and that argument has some merit if he struggles in exhibition games and appears to be hurting the team more than he’s helping.
That’s the thing, though. While Slaf failed to score last night in his preseason debut, he did a lot of things well, and actually had the best opportunity to tie the game late with a great shot from the slot that Nico Daws made a great pad save on.
TSN analyst Dave Poulin was quite impressed with his pace, two-way game and physical play, and I would concur. It was his first time playing with Kirby Dach and Rem Pitlick, and it showed at times, as the trio didn’t really click with passes.
Look for Slaf to get more comfortable as he adjusts to the strength and skill level of NHL players. The dangles won’t work as often, he won’t be able to consistently muscle defencemen off the puck and the goalies are going to save shots that would normally find the back of the net. He will adjust, he’ll improve and he’ll acclimatize.
Habs fans have been twice bitten, thrice shy, so there is some understandable impatience and trepidation. Galchenyuk and Kotkaniemi were Europeans picked in the top three and neither became Montreal superstars, so they don’t want to see a repeat.
Every situation is different. Some will argue that KK playing his entire rookie season in Montreal hurt his development, so the Canadiens shouldn’t make the same “mistake” with Slafkovsky.
The problem with that argument is that Slafkovsky is a completely different player. In his first camp, he weighed 50 pounds more than KK, who was dubbed “Bambi” because of his long spindly legs. Slaf, on the other hand, is anchored on tree trunks.
Slaf is also playing on the wing, and the adjustment is far less complicated. He doesn’t have to take faceoffs or cover the entire ice surface defensively. He needs to cover the point in his own zone and with his size and determination, he’s already showing Montreal’s coaches that he can do that effectively.
Were Stutzle, Barkov, Lindholm and Svechnikov irreparably harmed by being thrown right into the fire? They were not.
The one European player from the past decade who went the AHL route in his draft year and turned out just fine was Mikko Rantanen, and he also happens to be the prospect that most resembles Slafkovsky given his size, strength, position and puck protection skills. Where the two most differ at the same age is in their skating. Rantanen needed to noticeably improve his skating as a rookie pro – Slafkovsky has no such issue.
The remaining exhibition games will tell a lot. If Slafkovsky fails to score a goal the entire camp, then you begin to worry about him losing his offensive confidence. We saw how that affected both KK and Caufield in their rookie seasons.
The other thing to consider is losing veterans on waivers. If Slafkovsky earns an NHL spot out of camp, that means a veteran doesn’t, and the Canadiens may lose that veteran for nothing or have to eventually buy out his contract. Slaf can be sent down with no worry about having to clear waivers.
Perhaps Slafkovsky goes to Laval to start the season to gain offensive confidence, and it buys time for GM Kent Hughes to find a landing spot for a Hoffman or Armia.
Mike Hoffman looked like an obvious choice to be cut going into training camp but he played last night like a veteran who has no intention of losing a spot. I don’t know if he trained extra hard this past offseason but he looked quicker last night, and he hustled. He was also wearing an “A”, which tells me that he’s done some maturing in the past few years and is by no means considered a cancer in the dressing room. I am no fan of Hoffman but these are indications that the club doesn’t intend on buying out his contract.
Slaf being in the AHL would allow the Canadiens to showcase another veteran for the trade deadline, and Hoffman would be an obvious choice. If he bounces back with a productive season and the Canadiens are out of the playoff picture in February, perhaps the club can finagle a second or third-round pick for him. The same holds true for Armia.
So – management needs to consider that as well. If sending Slaf to the AHL means him finding his confidence and the club picking up another top-90 pick in the process, then it may be a desirable option.
It would also mean that Slafkovsky would get to play in the WJC, and that’s something that has never harmed a prospect.
You also have to consider how Slafkovsky would react to such a demotion. First overall picks do not get sent to the AHL, so how would it affect his psyche? It’s rather clear in his interviews that he is a very proud young man and he thinks he can play in the NHL, so how would he react to a demotion? At the very least, he will be embarrassed by it, and that may not be a good thing. We don’t want him signing an offer sheet elsewhere when his contract expires as KK did, that’s for sure.
What the club decides to do with Filip Mesar may also weigh into the decision. Does Hughes really want to split up Batman and Robin… or Frick and Frack as I’ve dubbed them? The two have been inseparable since moving to Montreal this summer to train, and Mesar has looked good enough to play at the AHL level. He may not end up going to Kitchener in the OHL if he keeps this up.
If the club decides that Laval is the best place for Mesar, maybe they send Slafkovsky there as well if he has some struggles in the remaining exhibition games. Having his bosom buddy at his side would soften the blow to his ego in being the first top pick to play in the AHL right after being drafted.
That’s the other issue, of course. The whole public perception surrounding such an unprecedented move. We all remember the social media reaction to both Caufield and KK getting sent down to the minors – “They are busts! The Habs screwed up their development too!”
If fans overreacted in those instances, imagine the kerfuffle if they did it with the first overall pick.
I can see it now: “McCagg was wrong again! No wonder he’s a former scout. They should have taken Wright like I said!”
Such is life in the spotlight. Many fans live in the now. That reaction is wholly predictable, and we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. The important thing is doing what’s ultimately best for both the player and the team, and if it means a long stint in Laval, then that’s what Hughes will decide. Just like when they shut out the noise surrounding Wright on draft day, the Canadiens will shut out the noise surrounding how Slafkovsky should be handled at the end of training camp. All that matters is making the right choice…not pleasing the fans unconditionally. There will be fans who are bothered by the decision no matter which route they take anyway.
As Hockey Confucius once say: “GMs who listen to fans soon end up sitting beside them in the stands”, or words to that effect.
Hughes and Gorton haven’t made a poor decision yet, and I don’t expect them to screw this up either. Regardless of what they decide, patience will be the order of the day. Slafkovsky is not likely to explode offensively at 18 years of age in the NHL, and that has to be remembered.
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