BROSSARD, Que. — You want the first-overall pick in the draft to stand out, but you don’t necessarily expect him to be the best player on the ice in his first-ever scrimmage at an NHL training camp.
With the caveat that it was just a scrimmage, and that not all of the players Juraj Slafkovsky went up against on Friday are destined for the NHL this season, there was no question he was the best on the ice. He stood out on every shift, offering a glimpse of the various skills that saw him chosen above Shane Wright and all the others by the Montreal Canadiens this past July.
Start with the six-foot-four, 238-pound winger’s strength.
On one of Slafkovsky’s first shifts, skating on the right wing of a line that had Owen Beck at centre and Rafael Harvey-Pinard on the left, he got into a loose-puck battle with Joel Armia. With one hand on his stick, Slafkovsky fought off Armia’s stick-check like he was swatting a fly away.
You can say a lot of things about Armia — about what he does and doesn’t do — but one thing you can’t say is that he isn’t strong on his stick. The six-foot-three, 218-pound winger boasts that strength above all other skills and he was made to look weak by the 18-year-old.
As was Slafkovsky’s hockey sense.
He was in the right spots in all three zones and supporting the play to get the puck on his stick on virtually every shift.
And then there was what the big Slovak did with it.
He was giving on the give-and-go with Harvey-Pinard on his side’s 2-0 goal, making a slick move before sending an aerial pass for Harvey-Pinard to tap in. And on his last shift of the game, Slafkovsky parked himself on the right wall in the offensive zone, waited for a pass from the point and without hesitation fired a one-time pass across to Jordan Harris for a shot that generated a rebound Harvey-Pinard drove home for a 5-1 win.
This was after Slafkovsky led two rushes up the ice for successful zone entries, after he took a glance at the play developing so he could make a no-look pass to Harris with seconds remaining on the clock.
Throughout the game, Slafkovsky showed good speed and skated well. He had several scoring chances, popping his quick release with shots from different angles, only thwarted by some impressive saves by the goaltenders he faced. And his shot came off heavy and hard when he had time and on net when he didn’t.
All in all, it was the type of start the kid would have hoped for — and one the Canadiens had to be happy with.
What did coach Martin St. Louis take away from it?
“You can tell, like physically, he’s there,” he said. “He’s strong physically, good speed, can push people back, can win battles. It was nice to see him playing against some NHL guys.”
Kaiden Guhle’s maturity on display
It’s not often you hear a first-round pick, like Guhle was (chosen 16th overall by the Canadiens in 2020), say he was better off returning to junior than playing in the pros last year.
Not that it was all that realistic that, at 19, Guhle was going to be patrolling Montreal’s blue line full-time.
However, the idea of him doing it for at least a few games didn’t seem all that farfetched after watching him conduct himself as professionally as he did through training camp. That Guhle looked physically ready to play at this level made it that much more realistic.
But there’s a difference between looking ready and feeling ready and, after the pandemic limited him to just 11 games the season prior, the Edmonton native said on Friday that he didn’t feel ready.
“I felt that there were times where I still wasn’t quite ready for it, I was still a little bit too young,” Guhle told us after his lengthy media scrum wrapped.
He returned last fall to the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, posted 15 points in 17 games before being traded to the Edmonton Oil Kings, and finished out the regular season with five goals and 25 points in 25 games.
In between, Guhle impressed at the World Junior Championship — at least in the games that were played before the tournament was postponed due to COVID — and then, in the spring, helped the Oil Kings win the WHL championship.
Guhle nursed a lower-body injury through three Memorial Cup games and then took very little rest before pushing through his summer routine ahead of Montreal’s training camp.
How much difference does one year make in terms of feeling ready?
“I think it was big,” Guhle told us. “I think one year, just playing a lot of games, getting put in a lot of different situations was big for me and my game. I think one year was big for me in my development. I think I played 11 games the year prior, so I think it was big for me to go back and just kind of get used to the game and the flow and work on my game. I think it was awesome for me to go back.”
It’s showing early in this camp, where Guhle, who was captain of Team Canada and MVP of the WHL playoffs, appears so comfortable and confident.
“He looks like a professional,” said Canadiens veteran David Savard, who paired up with Guhle during the morning scrimmage. “He looks like he’s been around for a long time. He has confidence when he’s on the ice and has the puck to make plays, and it’s fun to see when a young guy is confident on the ice and you know he’s going to make good reads.”
The kid will be given every opportunity of making this team, and you have to love his chances of doing so.
“He’s got good size, he’s got good mobility, his touches are good, he’s got it all,” said St. Louis. “So, that alone, what he has, pretty confident he’ll play in the NHL.
“But now we’ve got to figure out what kind of player he’s going to be in the NHL, and a lot of that responsibility falls on him, and he’s going to be supported by a staff of people that can help his game. We’ll see where he takes it, but the package alone is NHL material.”