The Juraj Slafkovsky era has started in Montreal.
The first overall pick from the 2022 draft suited up for the Montreal Canadiens at the Buffalo Sabres rookie challenge on Thursday.
Anyone who has been reading my take on players over the last several months, here at Sportsnet.ca, will recognize my analysis comes without bias. My goal is to provide an inside look at how prospects are evaluated at events like these at the start of a new season.
Having said that, here is evaluation of Slafkovsky from Buffalo:
Slafkovsky played the wing alongside fellow 2022 first-round pick Filip Mesar who was selected 26th overall in July. The other winger was Riley Kidney a second round selection from the 2021 draft.
Power forward frame
It’s clear from the outset that Montreal sees Slafkovsky’s size and strength as an asset when assembling line-mates to play with the Slovakian forward. He is listed at 6”4 229lbs for this event but rumours have him potentially weighing as much as 239lbs.
(Comparatively Mesar is listed at 5”10 167lbs and Kidney 5”11 168lbs)
It’s truly incredible that a someone his size can get places as quickly as he does. He was quick to small areas and showed a gear with and without the puck through the neutral zone. He will have no issues with the pace of the NHL game.
First on the scene (F1)
Referencing his push with and without the puck, Slafkovsky was a distraction throughout the game. When the Habs resorted to dumping a puck into the offensive zone he was active chasing down opponents. His long reach created some turnovers.
More impressively, he — literally — man handled defencemen down low in their zone. He easily knocked them off pucks physically, corralled loose pucks, and went to work offensively.
I’m struggling to put into words and use appropriate adjectives describing his physical dominance in the trenches. It’s impressive to watch.
200ft Game / All Situations
Slafkovsky didn’t cut corners with his effort. He tracked all the way back in his zone. If it was his responsibility to provide back pressure, he took the play all the way to his crease to eliminate scoring chances against.
On the power play, he made some sneaky plays through bodies and under opponents sticks distributing the puck. He’s not one to stand still after moving the play. He goes to the middle of the ice, net front, providing screens and looking for tips and rebounds. He takes the “eyes” away from goalies in the process and gives opponents all they can handle trying to move him away from their crease.
On the penalty kill, he rotated relatively well in his zone and pressed the play up ice. His lone point of the game, versus Buffalo, came off a puck race he won up ice. He surveyed his options and found Mesar coming late. He fed him a pass in the left circle for the short -handed goal and primary assist.
Areas that will need to improve
Coming from Europe, and playing on the larger ice surface, it is going to take some time for Slafkovsky to make some adjustments to his game.
On one hand his 200ft effort, tracking all the way to his crease on the back check, will come easier with less ice to cover.
On the other hand, he will learn there is less width to the North American ice and taking pucks to the middle of the ice off the rush in the NHL is a risky proposition. There were, at least, three occasions that Juraj came to the middle of the ice and exposed himself and the puck. Lucky for him the likes of Scott Stevens don’t generally patrol NHL blue lines in today’s NHL.
(Full marks to Buffalo Sabres blue liner Zach Berzolla for gapping up on one of the entries I’m describing. He must have felt he ran head long into a freight train)
Other small details included early exits from the defensive zone when he anticipated a chip off the boards or a stick to stick outlet. He will get more comfortable with his teammates in time and better exits will result but it’s never a good idea to be above the play when the puck is still in your defensive zone. It leads to goals against in the NHL.
I feel like I’m being hyper critical when describing the areas he needs to improve.
The bottom line is he was the most noticeable, physically dominant, skilled forward in the game. He stood out. He was an outlier.
The game moves quickly and he, like all NHL players, are destined to make mistakes. There isn’t a single player in the league who plays a perfect 60 minutes of hockey night in and night out.
It’s early. This is just the beginning of his training camp journey. But he looks NHL ready to me.