MONTREAL— If you were paying close attention, you’d have noticed Juraj Slafkovsky sitting in the middle of the Canadiens’ bench with the blade of his hockey stick exposed, taped in the same bizarre fashion as it had been through all of training camp and the first four games of this season.
When it flashed across my TV screen prior to Tuesday’s game in Nashville, I couldn’t get seeing that familiar pattern again for the first time since Oct. 20 out of my mind.
That was when Slafkovsky had initially opted for something more traditional at the urging of several teammates before scoring his first NHL goal in a 6-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes.
The 18-year-old’s blank blade, covered only by two loops of tape at the toe, had served him well on that night, just as it had on his rise to being selected first overall in the 2022 Draft by the Canadiens. He had dominated the Olympics and world championship of hockey, scoring beautiful goals with nothing but exposed carbon fibre flinging vulcanized rubber, and that seemed to be something he was disinclined to mess with.
But after skating through the first six pre-season games and struggling through the first ones of consequence of his NHL career without seeing the puck hit the back of the net off his pallet, Slafkovsky was grasping at something intangible to turn his luck.
It worked, and I didn’t think the big Slovak was ever going back. Until I saw him in the middle of Montreal’s bench on Tuesday, once again holding that stick with the wonky tape job — this time before being held off the scoresheet against the Predators for a ninth consecutive game and limited to zero shots on goal for the sixth time in as many contests.
I asked him about it Thursday morning.
“New year, old tape job,” Slafkovsky mused.
What I heard was “old confidence problem.”
And, after watching what happened later in the day in a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers, I think it’s going to take much more than some innocuous change to a piece of equipment for Slafkovsky to solve it.
Because it’s one thing to make a mistake — just like any other player and like many other 18-year-olds do all the time in the NHL — and it’s another to make one under the context Slafkovksy made on Thursday.
The Canadiens had come into the game winless in their last six, tasked with correcting their horrible defensive play to curb a costly habit of surrendering early leads, and desperate to exert some type of control over a game for the first time since early December. They skated through the first 37 minutes of it largely succeeding, even though it took them nearly 17 to put their first shot on net.
If you were just judging by the shot meter, you’d have missed how well the Canadiens were actually playing. They had been allowing 10 scoring chances per first period over the six games prior but held the Rangers to just three through the opening 20. At the other end, they were only at zero shots for as long as they were because they had missed a couple of attempts and passed up five shooting opportunities before Evgenii Dadonov broke the ice.
The play Jake Evans made to set up that first scoring chance was indicative of the attention to detail the Canadiens had been exhibiting for the first time in weeks. He blocked a shot in his own end and, despite being hobbled on the play, charged Adam Fox at his own blue line, chipped the puck through to the neutral zone, and sent Dadonov in for a good rush opportunity.
The Canadiens were making plays like that and seizing control of the game right up until Slafkovsky and his unit set up for the second wave of a second-period power play.
That’s when he ended up making a play that would leave him shaking his head and slamming that oddly taped stick into the boards in front of Montreal’s bench.
Jonathan Drouin pushed the puck to Dadonov in the high slot, and Dadonov shot it and generated a rebound that went straight to Slafkovsky. The kid was in prime position to either drive the puck down to the goal line or shoot it, but he instead opted to push a slow, blind backhand pass back to the point that was intercepted by Chris Kreider and skated the length of the ice for the goal that put the Rangers up 1-0.
Slafkovsky knew how much of a killer that was for his team.
As captain Nick Suzuki later said, in a tone that indicated he clearly felt bad for his young teammate, it would’ve been easier to forget if not for the fragile state of the Canadiens.
It took six minutes for them to come unglued and give up two more goals after that costly error, and they never recovered despite a valiant third-period effort that saw Joel Armia score his first goal of the season and come within inches of adding a second to make it a more exciting finish.
“It’s a hard position to be here at 18,” Suzuki said of Slafkovksy. “Not a lot of guys get to do it. And for him to do it shows how good of a player he really is. It’s tough, he wants to produce and help the team, but he’s kind of a young puppy coming into the league and he’s got a lot to learn. He’s going to be a good player for us in the future, and this is just part of the process here.”
It’s been a healthy one for Slafkovksy for the most part, despite waning ice time and opportunity at different points through the first 39 games of the season.
But you can’t help but be concerned about what making such a magnified mistake like that one will do to a player whose confidence has already sunken so low he’s grasping at just about anything to fix it.
When I asked Slafkovsky earlier in the day how he’s keeping his intact, the first words out of his mouth were: “I don’t know.”
He then said it’s by trying to string good plays together in practices and in games.
When pressed further by another reporter, Slafkovksy said, “I trust myself and believe it will come back soon.”
Teammates are encouraging Slafkovksy in the meantime. Evans said he chats with him and highlights the positives in his game just like several others do on a daily basis.
But many of them also have low confidence at the moment and their play is doing little to help Slafkovsky’s.
Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said he’ll check in with the kid at Friday’s practice.
“You always want plays back, you know,” St. Louis said. “Probably some that cost more, you want more. It’s probably something that he’ll think about tonight, and tomorrow (it’s) just a simple, ‘How you doing, Slaf? Are you OK? It’s part of it.’ Just a simple discussion, and we’ll go to work.”
But the Canadiens have to be considering doing more than that to help restore the player’s confidence.
I reported last week that the Canadiens are concerned about Slafkovksy being targeted in the American Hockey League, especially without a couple of heavy hitters like Arber Xhekaj and Michael Pezzetta down there to protect him, and that’s a normal concern to have considering he’ll have the puck on his stick far more often.
But it’s one the Canadiens have to be willing to live with at this point if they’re going to do what’s best for Slafkovsky’s development.
Earlier in the day, St. Louis said Slafkovsky can’t buy the type of experience he’s getting right now, but the kid wouldn’t want to pay for the type of experience he had at the Bell Centre on Thursday.
Exposing him to more at this point could prove costly, and a few more tape bands on his stick aren’t likely to change that.