WASHINGTON, D.C. — Despite what you might think, the Montreal Canadiens aren’t under any illusions about Juraj Slafkovsky’s preparedness — or lack thereof — to be an impact player in the NHL right now.
They drafted him first overall this past summer knowing he’d be a project, that it would likely take several seasons for him to develop into the player they think he’ll eventually be, that he’ll have to grow into that 6-foot-4, 238-pound body of his, and they’re watching the same games you and I are.
They’ve probably drawn the same conclusion, as well — that Slafkovsky will benefit from time in the American Hockey League at some point in the near future.
But the Canadiens aren’t likely to send him there before exposing him to more hockey at this level to help establish the habits they want to see in his game.
Contrary to popular opinion, that actually is what’s best for the big Slovak’s development at this exact stage.
It’s totally understandable to feel that Slafkovsky — who topped out 12:41 in a 3-1 loss to the Washington Capitals on Saturday after playing less than 11 minutes in each of his first two NHL games — would be better off in a league where the puck would be on his stick far more often, where he could dangle his way through on the rush, score goals and feel that much better about himself.
To see him register just one shot on net through his three games while failing to establish much in the way of offensive-zone pressure with linemates Christian Dvorak and Brendan Gallagher, is to know things are moving slightly too fast for him at this level.
But, as Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said before Slafkovsky and his teammates took the ice at Capital One Arena, “There’s not one minute that isn’t important in this league,” and every one the 18-year-old is spending here will serve him well.
The Canadiens want Slafkovsky to go through his moments in the NHL and gain valuable insight into what it takes to be effective at this level. The results are secondary for them.
“There’s definitely an adaptation period,” said St. Louis after Saturday’s game, “and he’s going through that right now.”
There’s value in it being difficult. For now.
Not that the Canadiens should risk overexposing Slafkovsky and putting him in situations that could lead to his confidence eroding. But he won’t get any better at this level without gaining a full understanding of what it takes to succeed in the NHL, and that’s not going to happen for him by going straight to the AHL at this point in time.
What this small NHL sample has revealed is Slafkovsky needs a bit more time learning to play more north-south and to battle for the puck on his stick rather than have it just come to him — like it did in Europe and like it will in the AHL.
Not that Slafkovsky hasn’t had solid flashes — showing off a strong skating stride, soft hands and a willingness to drive to the middle of the ice and get physical.
But he’s spent too much of his time forcing plays on the rush and too little of it putting pucks in places where he can take advantage of the size and reach he possesses.
The Canadiens are working with him on that.
“I think for Slaf, he’s going to understand to use his body to his advantage more than just the skillset that he has, especially at his size,” said St. Louis. “And the way a lot of the goals are scored in this league is driving the net and going to the paint and stuff like that, go win the puck in the corner…”
Right now, the goal is to show Slafkovsky how he can do that.
St. Louis put him with Dvorak and Gallagher for that precise reason.
They may not be the optimal linemates for Slafkovsky once he’s figured the North American game out but, as straight-line players who have 1000 games of NHL experience between them, they’re the right ones in the meantime.
“He has a positive attitude,” said Gallagher of the 18-year-old. “We’re working on little things — playing down low, playing on the forecheck, and some chances are starting to come. We hit two posts tonight, so I think we just have to stick with the process. He has a pretty good head on his shoulders, and he understands that.”
Time — even if it’s just a week or two more with the Canadiens — will allow Slafkovsky to understand more.
“It’s different than what he’s used to for sure,” Gallagher continued. “I’ve gone over to the big ice once, and it was a huge adjustment for me. And then there’s another adjustment to make here in terms of learning opponent tendencies. He needs these reps, and we’re with him every day and I can say he’s making good progress.
“I think we’re trying to help him out as much as we can and be positive and constructive and everything he learns right now is going to be huge for him.”
It’s going to allow Slafkovsky to focus on the right things once he does go down to the AHL, and that’s how the Canadiens are thinking about his development at the moment.