The Montreal Canadiens have dressed a lot of rookies in their lineup so far this season, with a lot of hockey still to be played. All of them have had Habs fans excited, but there is no bigger prospect than Juraj Slafkovsky, literally. The 2022 first overall pick was the first for the franchise since 1980 and is expected to be an essential part of the organization for a very long time. But his rookie season was not all it shaped up to be; marred by inconsistent play and injuries, it’s been a slow process for the Slovak winger.
That being said, it really isn’t that surprising, as we have seen a few other first-overall picks in Jack Hughes and Alexis Lafrenière, struggle in their rookie seasons as well. What is more important is growth, both in the short and long term. Slafkovsky has shown the development, albeit in small spurts, before an injury stopped him in his tracks altogether. During that time, we learned more about the Habs’ top prospect, and we are starting to see what he can become.
Juraj Slafkovsky – The Good News:
When you look at a player like Slafkovsky, the first thing that jumps out is his size, and considering he’s 6’4″, 238 lbs, how could it not? But what makes Slafkovsky a unique player is his ability to handle the puck. He’s not just a big power forward whose sole purpose is to create space and win board battles for other players. Instead, he has the puck skills to create his own scoring chances and set up others, something that isn’t very common among power forwards. He’s also got a great shot and is a more than respectable skater.
This skillset combined makes him a potentially dangerous and versatile player, one that very few teams have. He has a long way to go, but a player with a similar size/skillset combo is Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche. Slafkovsky has shown his abilities at the NHL level, proving that he can keep up with and perform on this stage. He needs to continue refining those skills and putting together more consistent performances. But that’s not an impossible task, and with the help of Adam Nicholas, the Canadiens skills coach, he is likely already on his way to doing it.
Rantanen is a lofty comparison, a future 1000-point guy, so I want to be clear that I’m not saying they are direct comparisons, but rather that there are some guys like Slafkovsky already in the NHL, and some darn good ones at that. Rantanen is an outstanding player and is the kind of player Slafkovsky should be working towards becoming, as difficult a task as that may be. He’s already shown he has the skills to do that.
Listening to Slafkovsky speak, you get the sense that he wants to be great, and he understands the process of getting there is long and complex. But he doesn’t seem phased by the setbacks and doesn’t shy away from the spotlight. That might be important for any NHL player, but it’s absolutely essential in a place like Montreal. There is nowhere to hide; the bright lights of the Bell Centre will find you. That doesn’t seem to bother Slafkovsky in the slightest, and that’s really encouraging as he continues to grow on and off the ice.
It’s easy to see why the Canadiens brass liked him and believed he could become the best player from the 2022 group. Confidence is key. Sometimes you worry about how an 18-year-old kid will handle the responsibilities that come with playing for the Habs, but those worries don’t exist with Slafkovsky. If there is an opportunity to grow, I’m confident Slafkovsky will seize it. He’s given us no reason to believe he can’t.
Juraj Slafkovsky- The Bad News:
As you would expect, it wasn’t an incredibly smooth transition to the NHL for Juraj Slafkovsky, but I don’t think anyone expected him to struggle physically. It may not be all that surprising to find that the NHL is a more physical league than Liga, the Finnish league Slafkovsky was playing in last year, but nobody anticipated it to be a big step up for someone of Slafkovsky’s size. And yet, on more than one occasion, he was caught with his head down, unprepared for what followed. That’s something the rookie will need to figure out much quicker before it begins to take a toll on him and his body. He needs to take better care of himself on the ice.
As previously mentioned, the tools Slafkovsky possesses are evident, and to me, it’s abundantly clear that he can become a great player as he continues to develop. That being said, I felt he didn’t use those skills often enough in his rookie year. But it’s incredibly early in his career, just 39 games in, to be exact, so don’t panic just yet. Again, we’re talking about a 6’4″, 238-pound player with the puck skills of a player much smaller than that. It’s not outlandish to say we could’ve seen him use that unique size and skill combination more this season. Still, the flashes we did get were fantastic to see, and I have no concerns that as he continues to get comfortable, he will put that skillset to use.
Juraj Slafkovsky – The Bottom Line:
Back even before the preseason began, I wrote about expectations for some of the rookies the Canadiens would potentially have in the lineup. With Slafkovsky, I didn’t expect much from him, primarily because he’s 18, and despite being a first-overall pick, he was not and still is not a generational talent. He shouldn’t come in and tear it up at 18 years old; not many do. What I did say was that the growth he showed would be far more critical, and while I don’t think there is a night and day difference, I do think he got better as the year went on. The problem is that 39 games aren’t a lot to go off, but that appears to be all we’ll get for this year.
I’m very intrigued to see how much better Slafkovsky will get over the years, but for now, he is still just a prospect, even if he is playing in the NHL. Fans should be more excited about what he can be in the future, not necessarily what he is now. I would say that as far as rookie seasons go, especially at 18 years old, Slafkovsky is about where he should be. He had his ups, and he had his downs. Now the goal is to have fewer and fewer bad days.