Opportunity Knocks for Slafkovsky as Canadiens’ Injuries Mount

Juraj Slafkovsky is 19 games into what the Montreal Canadiens hope will be a long and prosperous NHL career with hockey’s most storied franchise. During those 19 games, this past summer’s no. 1 overall pick has shown flashes of his immense potential, but overall, his development can be described as slow and steady which is exactly the path to take with an 18-year-old getting his first taste of the best league in the world.

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With the recent injuries suffered by veteran forwards Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, and Mike Hoffman, the Slovak has been given his first opportunity in a more offensive role in the team’s top-six and so far, he’s shown that he’s ready for the extra responsibilities.

Finding His Footing

Head coach Martin St. Louis has been rightfully patient with his young charge, allowing him time to adjust to his new surroundings and to figure out his identity at the highest level.

Juraj Slafkovsky Montreal Canadiens 2022 Draft
Juraj Slafkovsky, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Slafkovsky has posted four goals and seven points while playing 10-12 minutes per game primarily on the fourth line and getting some second-unit power play time. At this rate, he’s on pace for 18 goals over 82 games which is similar production to what Andrei Svechnikov put up during his rookie campaign with the Carolina Hurricanes. That’s quite the comparison for the teenager especially considering that he hasn’t been playing alongside offensive-minded players, at least until now.

He played his best game of the season against the Calgary Flames on Dec. 1 with Josh Anderson and Sean Monahan as his linemates on the Habs’ second line. Not only did Slafkovsky score 13 seconds into the game after completing an impressive play by Monahan, but he also showed more speed down the wing, creativity, and wasn’t afraid to shoot. He nearly notched a second goal thanks to a great individual rush but hit the post. On the fourth line, he had tended to be a bit indecisive and was too often looking to pass. It was one game, but it was also a strong statement and an important step forward for him.

Proving He Belongs

It will be up to Slafkovsky to make the most of this chance afforded to him and demonstrate that he can handle more ice time with more impactful players. They will make him better, but he also has to help create opportunities for his linemates by driving to the net as well as his aggressive play along the boards and underrated passing ability.

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He’s building some nice chemistry with Monahan and Anderson. The trio complements each other well thanks to each having an enviable combination of size and speed. Slafkovsky and Monahan can make plays while Anderson creates space with his straight-line skating ability. All three are hard for opposing teams to defend against and they can forecheck aggressively. The two veterans can also show the rookie how effective their style of play can be for him going forward.

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“I like to play with Mony (Monahan), he makes players around him better and then me and Andy (Anderson) we’re pretty much close type of players, pretty much the same, and I think it worked out pretty well, but we’ll see in the future,” Slafkovsky said after the Calgary game.

If there was any lingering doubt about whether Slafkovsky should remain with the Canadiens, the early returns on his second-line audition are an indication that he belongs in the NHL and it’s highly likely that he won’t be seeing the American Hockey League anytime soon nor will he be getting loaned to Slovakia for the upcoming World Juniors.

If he continues to perform in a top-six role, it will be interesting to see whether Slafkovsky keeps his current place in the lineup when his injured teammates return. Until then, he needs to continue to play with confidence, let his talent shine through, and make the most of his well-earned opportunity to give a glimpse of the future in the present.