Canadiens’ Slafkovsky, Guhle part of group committed to accelerated development

The Montreal Canadiens cruised to a 5-0 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday night. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

BROSSARD, Que. — I arrived at the Montreal Canadiens’ practice facility 30 minutes before the team’s scheduled session of the day, or roughly 30 minutes after Juraj Slafkvosky and Kaiden Guhle had taken to the ice to work with Glen “Dr. Shot” Tucker.

When I left, roughly 45 minutes after practice ended, Jordan Harris, Brandon Gignac and Michael Pezzetta were putting in their work with Tucker.

In between, while Martin St. Louis’ 15-minute, post-practice media availability was taking place, Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki were doing extra reps, and they weren’t alone. Another handful of young players were still working on their individual skills in different sections of the ice.

If management was watching it all from beginning to end, they had to like what they were seeing. As St. Louis noted, it is they who have provided the resources for the players to properly develop — instructors Adam Nicholas and Scott Pellerin, who are regularly on hand at practice, and specialists like Tucker — and to see them being put to good use had to be satisfying.

The most satisfying thing has to be knowing that the environment they’ve created has at least partially influenced the players to take ownership of their own development.

The rest comes down to one key internal factor — a player’s natural willingness to improve and not only submit to the process but also completely engage in every aspect of it.

You have to think all NHL players have that within them, that they’d have never made it to the top level without it.

But it’s also fair to assume some of them have more of it inside them than others.

Looking at how much Slafkovsky has improved from his rookie season to this sophomore year — and even how much he’s improved from Game 15 to Game 50 within that sophomore year — it seems obvious he’s higher up on that ladder.

Just how much?

“I don’t know,” said St. Louis, the Hall of Famer who stood at the very top of that ladder throughout his entire playing career. 

“We’re going to find out,” he continued. “He’s 19. So far, it’s been great, but he’s so young. But I can see him being a guy that keeps wanting to get better, but I just hope that he keeps that focus and that hunger…He’s a young player that’s progressed tremendously well, and it all starts with him. It doesn’t matter what we want to do with him, it starts with him and his attitude and engagement. It’s been pretty impressive.”

But it’s not particularly surprising. 

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We’re talking about a player who left home at 14 years old and worked his way up from the middle of the draft order to the very top of it over the next four years. 

In the process, Slafkovsky not only showed he had the ability to improve quickly, but that he also has a burning desire to do so.

“I’ve always wanted to get better,” Slafkovsky said on Thursday. “But seeing my game improve and feeling the change has made me want to do even more.”

Guhle recognizes that.

As he said after practice, he’s gotten extremely close with Slafkovsky. He’s seen the same happy-go-lucky demeanour that the young Slovak often presents to the media, but he’s also seen his serious side and knows how much it’s driving him right now.

“I think he’s hard on himself, but I think that’s what you want,” Guhle said. “I know he’s obviously a different player this year compared to last year, where there were some tough times and me and a lot of the guys were trying to tell him to take it easy on himself. He was 18 years old last year and, coming into the league at that age, I know I would’ve struggled a lot. 

“But I think it’s also been good for him with that experience under his belt. He wants to be the best player out there, and that’s what you want. He works hard on and off the ice, and that’s something I’ve really learned about him is just his work ethic and how much he always wants to be the best.”

It’s a trait Guhle—and several other Canadiens—appear to share, which obviously bodes well for the team’s future.

Hence all the extra work.

“It’s huge,” the 22-year-old defenceman said. “You see it a lot now, too. Look at Connor Bedard, for example—I saw the stuff about his coach trying to pay the Zamboni guy (to kick him off the ice after practice)—and when you hear all that, you know that’s what you have to do now to stay in this league and be relevant in this league. You can’t just take it easy in practice or not do extra work before or after practice. I knew that at an early age, having an older brother go through it before me, but the whole team does it.”

He said the Canadiens plan to keep it that way, and that’s what you want to hear if you’re a member of the management team. 

They’ve invested so much to ensure individual development takes hold quickly. So much of the organization’s success depends on that.

Thursday’s activities would’ve only reinforced to management that dividends are coming.

Some are already being paid, with Slafkovsky and Guhle among others seemingly taking bigger and bigger steps with each passing day.

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The former has already turned a weakness into a strength—play without the puck—allowing him to focus more on the next phase of his development, which St. Louis says is finishing plays with the puck. And the latter said he feels the extra work he’s put in since arriving with the Canadiens as the 16th-overall pick in 2020 has enabled him to process the game at a much higher speed.

“I think just my awareness on the ice has gone up through video and practice and extra work,” said Guhle. “The repetition in practice is huge, but it’s something I’m always trying to work on outside of it, too.”

The Canadiens have a number of players taking the same approach, and that’s the way it has to be for them to keep advancing in their build.

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