There were no prospects projected to become elite NHL players in the 2022 NHL Draft. Nevertheless, the Montreal Canadiens’ choice to select winger Juraj Slafkovský over the consensus pick of Shane Wright was a shocking one. Though Slafkovský went on to play more games as an 18-year-old in the NHL than any other player from the draft class, the 10 points he scored in 39 games before getting injured only provided more evidence for his doubters.
He prepared for the 2023-24 campaign on a line with Kirby Dach in training camp, a partnership that began to click just as the season was set to begin. After an injury to Dach in game two of the season, the lines needed to be shuffled, and since head coach Martin St-Louis found few combinations that worked the way he wanted, that line-juggling continued all through the opening months of the campaign.
Having so many different linemates didn’t give Slafkovský a chance to get comfortable in his sophomore season, and now 31 games in, he sits on just eight points; the same points-per-game rate (0.26) he finished with last year.
The struggles had a lot of people believing he needed to drop down a level, feeling an assignment to the American Hockey League would give him some confidence and let him work on getting adjusted to the game at the lessened pace of minor hockey. It was recently revealed that some of those people were members of the Canadiens’ management team, expressing their desire to make the demotion. But St-Louis saw progress being made, and convinced his general manager to let the big winger continue on under his tutelage.
From the outside just looking at the point totals (the most common way to judge a player’s quality), it doesn’t seem like any improvement has been made. But watching him play, he’s become a different player in the past few weeks, getting settled on a line with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, commanding the puck and being much more of a factor on a nightly basis, often the team’s best player.
You may not be familiar with Slafkovský’s game, but you do know the reputation of Brendan Gallagher, who rampages around the offensive zone hunting pucks and crashing creases. This year, Slafkovský has the higher value in All Three Zones‘ forechecking stat, a combination of pressure on puck-carriers and retrievals in the offensive zone. The data isn’t available to compare the first part of his season with the that following his top-line promotion, but the fact that he now sits at the top of this list after early criticism of his NHL readiness is a good indication of how strong his recent play has been.
While Gallagher’s efforts are mostly to retrieve pucks and move them along the boards or try to bash a puck into the net, Slafkovský is winning pucks and directly setting up teammates in dangerous areas. Now playing each game with Suzuki and Caufield, that’s the top three chance-generators on the ice at the same time, setting each other up for quality opportunities.
So far, that play isn’t leading to many goals, but it is leading to a lot of attempted shots that just miss the target. Eventually those close-range looks are going to start going into the net, and Slafkovský’s point totals will start to reflect the rapid improvement he’s made over the past month.