Getting drafted first overall comes with certain expectations. Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes didn’t exactly put those expectations to bed when he said he’d like No. 1 pick Juraj Slafkovsky to play in North America next season. So, Slafkovsky being rushed to the NHL has become a realistic possibility in the minds of many.
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NHL or Bust for Slafkovsky?
Granted, “North America” could mean major junior, with the Erie Otters owning Slafkovsky’s rights, too. However, based on Hughes’ comments, that doesn’t seem likely to happen. It probably shouldn’t either.
Remember, much was made about Slafkovsky’s ability to play against men leading up to the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. For example, he was named most valuable player at the 2022 Winter Olympics. At the 2022 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship. Slafkovsky also led Slovakia in scoring.
So, Slafkovsky making the move across the Atlantic from Europe just to play against teenagers sounds like a huge step back. At the opposite end of the spectrum though, putting him right on a line with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield (for example), which is envisioned as his eventual home, is too ambitious right out of the gate.
Slafkovsky vs. Wright
Had the Canadiens drafted Shane Wright, like many expected, it might have been a different story. Emphasis on “might,” as the general consensus leading into the 2022 NHL Entry Draft had been that there were no sure things in terms of stars, even if Wright was seen as arguably the safest choice available with a projected floor of a second-line center.
Related: 4 Reasons Canadiens Take Wright with #1 Pick at 2022 Draft
However, Wright’s case is different in that, as a just-drafted player out of the Canadian Hockey League, his options are different due to a long-standing agreement with the NHL. Wright either stays with the Seattle Kraken, who eventually drafted him fourth overall, or he gets sent back to the Kingston Frontenacs in the Ontario Hockey League.
In contrast, Slafkovsky, coming out of the SM-liiga in Finland, can go to the American Hockey League instead. Admittedly, Slafkovsky was seen as the most NHL-ready prospect of this latest draft class due to his latest showings on the international stage and his listed 6-foot-4, 218-pound frame. However for a player who has yet to play meaningful hockey in North America?
Simply put, there is no good reason for the Canadiens to rush the kid to the NHL when he has yet to acclimate himself to the different game this side of the Atlantic. It does largely depend on how Slafkovsky does in training camp. Obviously, if he looks in step with everyone else and to a degree “dominates” like he did at the Olympics and World Championship, the Canadiens would understandably find it hard to hold him back from sticking around, but they should still fight the urge.
Slafkovsky’s Olympic and World Championship Performance
Keep in mind, the caliber of competition is not the same in the NHL compared to at the Olympics and IIHF World Championship. NHL players didn’t even participate in Beijing. Meanwhile, at the World Championship, the leading scorer was Czech forward Roman Cervenka, who hasn’t played in the NHL since he got in 39 games with the Calgary Flames in 2012-13.
For his part, Slafkovsky undeniably looked impressive leading Slovakia in scoring. However, the lion’s share of his success came against non-hockey powers like France, Kazakhstan, Italy and Denmark, against whom he scored two goals and six assists (eight of his nine points). Each of those teams were either eliminated in the group stage or relegated to a lower division for the 2023 edition of the tournament.
Slafkovsky admittedly scored against Switzerland, which had a decent tournament, leading Group A in the round robin, only to get eliminated by the United States in the first round. However, against the other teams above Slovakia in the Group A standings (Canada, Germany), Slafkovsky was held scoreless. The same goes for against eventual-champion Finland in the two teams’ quarterfinal match-up.
Perlini a Cautionary Tale
So, the idea that Slafkovsky was dominant is a falsehood. The notion he should be able to step into the NHL right away is optimistic. The argument he’s ready has yet to be proven at all. However, even if Slafkovsky does have a successful training camp and preseason, it similarly doesn’t guarantee much.
The top scorers of the 2021-22 preseason are hardly a who’s who of top NHL competition either. As evidence of that fact, Brendan Perlini ended in a tie for first with five goals and one assist.
Yes, the same Brendan Perlini, who was out of the NHL by 24, playing in Switzerland in 2020-21. The same Perlini who signed a one-year deal with the Edmonton Oilers to get back to the NHL last summer, lighting it up in the preseason and prompting hockey poolies everywhere to take a flyer on him, hoping he’d get regular ice time with Connor McDavid. The same Perlini who then scored just five points in 23 games, getting waived multiple times. The same Perlini who was a first-round pick himself back in 2014… and is similar in size to Slafkovsky (6-foot-3, 211 pounds).
Canadiens Must Manage Expectations for Slafkovsky
Now, this doesn’t mean Slafkovsky will fail. It just means he isn’t a sure thing to find success in the NHL right away. The Canadiens, who are likelier to be in the running for another top draft pick than a playoff spot, should be in no rush to develop him as a result. In fact, if they were hypothetically to tank in 2022-23 to secure a high pick, sending Slafkovsky to the AHL would be one way to help along the process. That’s assuming he would slip seamlessly into the rhythm of things and contribute right away, though. If he doesn’t, he wouldn’t have much effect on the Habs’ chances one way or another, but the effects on his own game and the direction the team is taking could be long-lasting to say the least.
What is the downside to sending Slafkovsky down, really? The worst-case scenario, realistically speaking, is he acclimates to North America right away and proves he’s too good for the AHL, in which case you can definitely make a case to bring him up, but, until that point, all the Canadiens would be doing by playing him in the NHL is rolling the dice with his development, when they have absolutely nothing to gain.
Sure, there would be fanfare, build-up in the Montreal media and general excitement to see Slafkovsky in action in a Canadiens uniform, but that all means very little in the grand scheme of things. And, to Hughes’ credit, by picking Slafkovsky in the first place, he’s shown very little desire to bow to the expectations of others. Hopefully that’s a trend that continues in Slafkovsky’s case. For Slafkovsky’s sake… and theirs.