MONTREAL— “I know what applications to avoid, but when I can’t avoid it, I just laugh about it.” — Juraj Slafkovsky, on the constant — and oftentimes negative — social media chatter about his game.
Think back to July of 2022, when the Canadiens were on the precipice of venturing into an official rebuild for the first time in their 113-year history and about to dive right into it with the first-overall pick in the NHL Draft.
They were deciding between a massive Slovakian winger — who was a bit of a wildcard because the most glowing aspect of his resume was what he accomplished in two international competitions in the lead up to the draft — and a Canadian centreman who appeared destined to be top pick that year since the day he was granted exceptional status to enter the OHL at 15 years old.
In the end, Juraj Slafkovsky became a Canadien and Shane Wright dropped down to fourth and went to the Seattle Kraken, and it wasn’t just because the former was two inches taller and 53 pounds heavier than the latter.
Character broke the tie, if there ever was one. That much is obvious when you hear Canadiens co-director of amateur scouting Nick Bobrov sell management on Slafkovsky ahead of the draft.
“The pressure on him is a country and, so far, he’s handled it unbelievably well,” says Bobrov at the 1:46-mark of this video.
“So, to gauge how this kid can handle pressure, I think, there’s evidence, and the proof is in the pudding — not only through the tournaments, but through a period of time of maybe two-and-half years to three years where he’s been the next one — and he kept getting better while under pressure of that five-million population (in Slovakia),” he concludes.
If the Canadiens played in Seattle, where the Kraken were less than a year into their existence, this might not have even been as strong a consideration for Bobrov.
But you come to understand why Slafkovsky’s character, and his ability to handle “the pressure of a nation,” became fundamental in Montreal, where the Canadiens have hoisted 24 Stanley Cups and were choosing first overall in the draft for the first time in nearly 40 years.
If you didn’t in the summer of 2022, you should understand now. Especially if you’ve been perusing the ‘X’ application and reading the incessant chatter about Slafkovsky’s game since Canadiens training camp began.
He’s avoided it as much as a typical 19-year-old glued to his phone possibly can, but he hasn’t avoided it completely.
When we asked Slafkovsky what he thinks about the buzz when it seeps into his algorithm, like it might have after the Canadiens played the first game of the pre-season and his first game in close to nine months Monday, he says, “I just laugh about it.”
That was on Wednesday morning.
On Wednesday evening, in a 4-3 win over the Senators, Slafkovsky registered five shot attempts, scored a goal, came as close as it gets to scoring two more and appeared as unflappable handling the physical pressure of a rugged Senators lineup as he did handling the posts about his Monday shifts against the New Jersey Devils.
“I felt good today,” Slafkovsky said. “I felt better this Wednesday than I did last Wednesday, and I’m sure I’m going to feel better next Wednesday than I did today.”
He won’t be jumping on ‘X’ to read the praise of his performance in between, but the pressure will still be there.
Kirby Dach, who centred Slafkovsky in Wednesday’s win, said he doesn’t even understand how Slafkovsky deals with it.
Dach is a former third-overall pick of the Blackhawks. He came into the league immediately under pressure to dominate, suffered an injury that set him back considerably, then dealt with his fair share of criticism for not meeting sky-high expectations, and he still wouldn’t compare his experience over three years in Chicago to the one Slafkovsky has been through over the last year and change in Montreal.
The big Slovak was slow out of the gates in his rookie year with the Canadiens. He managed only four goals and 10 points in 39 games, and the valleys in his game appeared much bigger than the peaks before he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
But Slafkovsky managed to keep the experience in perspective all along.
He was 18 years old, playing in the world’s best hockey league, playing on the small ice for the first time in his life, and he was doing everything he could to grow his game while understanding it wouldn’t grow as fast as he or anyone else would like.
Slafkovsky didn’t pout from the press box as the Canadiens season wound down; he studied the game from there, studied video behind the scenes, worked with director of hockey development Adam Nicholas and spent a lot of time talking with coach Martin St. Louis.
How Slafkovsky approached that process says a lot about his maturity and his character.
“I just think he’s very engaged when we have discussions about his game and what I’m trying to get to him,” St. Louis said after praising Slafkovsky’s performance against the Senators. “He’s very engaged. And it’s not a monologue, it’s not a dictatorship; it’s a dialogue and a back and forth. To me, with your players, you’re playing catch. You’re throwing the ball to him, and he throws it back…”
Not every 19-year-old would, but Slafkovsky’s ability to engage with St. Louis — and his ability to disengage from the public discourse about his game — is proof positive he’s not your typical teenage NHLer.
“He handles it all so well,” says Filip Mesar.
He’s been Slafkovsky’s best friend since childhood, he was alongside him for the entire journey to the 2022 draft, and he’s been in touch with him every week since he became a Canadien 25 picks later. No one would be better-positioned to say why Slafkovsky’s actually made for Montreal.
“The pressure would bother anyone else,” says Mesar, “but Juraj has been through this for so long. You can’t understand how big he is in Slovakia. He’s been the biggest thing in Slovakia hockey for years, and everyone back home is following him just as much as the Canadiens fans, and he just focuses on what he has to, to keep getting better.
“He knows it’s a process.”
St. Louis can see Slafkovsky’s advancing in it, even if he warns his progress won’t be linear.
“I was hoping for him to grow, to keep growing,” the coach said. “And growing is not necessarily in a straight line. There’s going to be some dips and stuff, but I’m pretty sure at the end of the season, when we connect these dots, it’s going up. There’s going to be expectations that he has to live with. Sometimes they’re unfair.”
But Slafkovsky not allowing them to affect him is a big part of the reason he was chosen by the Canadiens.
And the way he shut out the negative and built on the positive from Monday’s game in order to use his big body effectively, move into open space and find the puck on his stick so much more often offers reason to be encouraged about the direction he’s headed in.
“It’s nice seeing him just having fun and just getting back to his game and seeing how confident he is with the puck,” said Dach. “There’s only room for him to grow and keep getting better, and that’s an exciting thing for our group and the city for sure.”