TEMPE, Ariz. — It’s been a debate ever since Juraj Slafkvosky landed with the Montreal Canadiens ahead of his first professional season and just months after he was taken first overall in the 2022 NHL Draft, and it’s raging at full volume now that he’s collected just one assist through 10 games after putting up four goals and 10 points in 39 games as a rookie.
On Thursday, at Mullett Arena, up against Logan Cooley, who was chosen third overall in 2022 and had put up seven points in his first nine NHL contests, the send-Slafkovsky-to-the-AHL mob gained a leg up. The 19-year-old was once again kept off the board, and his line with Alex Newhook and Josh Anderson spent more time chasing the puck in their own end than playing with it on offence until it was broken up in the third period due to an injury to Rafael Harvey-Pinard.
Insult to injury was added when Cooley set up the game-winning goal for Nick Schmaltz on a third-period power play.
He went back to college last year, got a chance to play at the world junior championship with Team USA and then another championship game with the University of Minnesota. This season, he was added to a vastly improved Coyotes team. The result, according to his coach, Andre Tourigny, was a player who came prepared to play in the NHL.
“He had a chance to play on the national stage, he played in two championship games in the end, with the NCAA championship and the WJC,” Tourigny said before the game. “Whether you win or lose, that’s amazing experience. We want all our young players to win; losing is a habit as winning is, and you learn to win and it becomes a sickness of sorts because when you win there’s nothing else you want.
“He was also in a situation where he was in a championship overtime, he was in one where he was behind a goal in a championship game and the pressure rose. He experienced good things, which will help him in the future. He’s learned, above his skill, to manage situations and different positioning on the ice, to be patient and not force plays. He learned a lot.”
There’s a legion of Canadiens fans who wish Slafkovsky had been given a similar experience last year.
But the Canadiens elected to start him right away in the NHL instead of sending him back to Finland for one more season. They chose not to send him to the world juniors to play for his native Slovakia. And the referendum on whether or not they did the right thing is ongoing.
The one on whether or not they’re doing right by Slafkovsky right now is heavily tilting to one side — the one that believes they aren’t.
The thing is, the Canadiens have their own expectations and plans for Slafkovsky, and they don’t feel results (or lack thereof) are of the same consequence as the fans who believe he should be in the AHL right now. What they’ve wanted since starting Slafkovsky in the NHL was to see him learn to play at NHL pace, to learn to process the game at the necessary speed, and to exhibit signs of growth throughout that process.
They’ve seen some, as has Slafkovsky, and they’ve sold to him that what’s most important at this point of his development — especially after he missed so much time in the second half of last season with a knee injury — is touching the puck more often.
What he does with it, as coach Martin St. Louis has said on multiple occasions, is secondary at this juncture.
When the coach was asked ahead of Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Coyotes if Slafkovsky buys into all of it, he responded, “I think so. I’m pretty sure he does.”
Still, the Canadiens have to consider whether or not Slafkovsky can continue to maintain his confidence without seeing the puck hit the back of the net off his stick — or off a teammate’s stick on a play he sets — for much longer.
Tourigny, who was adamant before the game that the NHL isn’t a development league, outlined what he feels are the warning signs of a player being out of place.
“When you’re not capable of executing something that’s normally your role without being nervous,” Tourigny started. “I always give an example that even if you’re the best student in your town, you don’t become a doctor at 12. You keep developing one year at a time, and once you get there and you’re confident and you’ve mastered your material, then one day you’ll be a doctor and you’ll climb the ranks one at a time. It’s the same thing in the NHL.
“If you get here and you’re nervous to make plays and you’re not confident with the puck and you’re having trouble sleeping at night because you’re not happy with the plays you made that night, the world will say it’s no big deal because you’re young. But he has to live with that every day, and he knows he’s not confident and has to sit next to a guy in the room who knows he’s struggling, and that’s not a position to develop from. You have to develop as a person, too, and self-confidence and confidence is very important in development. And when you’re not able to execute at the NHL level, it’s all well and good to say he’ll be good one day, but for the player, it’s not about one day. If I told you you’re going to be miserable for two years but you’ll be fine in three, would you take the job? You wouldn’t take it. You want to be happy every day, and it’s the same thing for players.”
Tourigny, who hails from Quebec and still does radio at least once a week in the province, didn’t mention Slafkovsky, but his comments appeared thinly veiled.
Regardless, he isn’t around the Canadiens on a daily basis, and just as he said he hasn’t paid close attention to what St. Louis has done in his time as Montreal’s coach, he also doesn’t know the ins and outs of how Slafkovsky has handled the pressure of playing in this market.
Jake Allen, who made 32 saves for Montreal on Thursday, insists his teammate’s confidence is well intact.
“He’s fine,” Allen said of Slafkovksy. “He seems great every day. Honestly, compared to last year, his mood is super impressive. He comes to the rink to work every day, and I’ve never seen him down. He’s doing the right things.”
That doesn’t mean sending the big Slovak down the AHL for a confidence boost is a bad idea.
If the idea is just to get Slafkovsky a few goals and points at a lower level so he can have the sensation resonate when he returns to the Canadiens, that’s one thing.
But it’s certainly debatable the AHL offers the player the best environment to learn how to process the game at NHL speed. The game down there is substantially slower, it’s far less structured due to the variance in talent and experience, and that’s a concern the Canadiens would have to reconcile — especially if they don’t feel Slafkovsky’s confidence is waning.
He’s also in a nurturing environment in Montreal, with a coach who checks in with him daily and teammates who view him as a key part of the team’s future and are committed to helping him on his journey.
“I think there’s going to be spells where he’s still gotta find ways to put it together, but he’s a young guy and I think that goes to a lot of us in the locker room to help him out too,” said Allen. “I still remember when I was 19, I definitely wasn’t in the NHL, and it’s a big transition. Even for a No. 1 overall pick, it’s not easy to come in, and with the expectations. But I thought he started the year very good. Even if the points weren’t there, I was impressed with his game. It’s all about keeping his head in the right place, and it goes to us to help him.”
As for the notion the NHL isn’t a development league, that’s true in cities where teams are Stanley Cup contenders and guaranteed locks for the playoffs and anything but true in others, like Montreal and Tempe, where both the Canadiens and Coyotes are just past the infancy stages of rebuilds.
Look at the way Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj and Jordan Harris have developed over the last year in the NHL.
Even as Tourigny was talking about how well Cooley has fared in the opening stage of his rookie season, he outlined how there’s been a steady progression from the start of camp to now.
“Logan started the season highly skilled, great work ethic, worked really hard, but obviously lack of positioning and stuff like that,” Tourigny said. “He learned so much every day. When I say he learned so much, he studied the game, he tried to be better, he does everything we ask, so progression is there. He’s now one of our best defensive forwards when he’s in his spot, now he needs to be consistent. I can’t say he’s doing it 10 out of 10 yet, but we can see the brightness. We can see he’s in the right level because he can do it against elite players. At the beginning of the season, I was paying attention to who I was putting him against, and now it’s next man up.”
How fast Slafkovsky gets there is anyone’s guess. He has different challenges than Cooley as a six-foot-four, 230-pound player who’s growing into his body and learning how to use it to be a power forward down the line.
That process is going to take time no matter where Slafkovsky continues to play, though some people believe it will never be completed if he continues to play in the NHL.
Thursday’s game may have given them more ammunition, as Slafkovsky failed to record a shot on net, let alone a point, through his 14:17 on the ice.
Heck, he wasn’t the only one who struggled, with St. Louis saying only three or four of his players showed up for the game. But his performance certainly won’t tame the debate.