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Should Montreal Canadiens let Juraj Slafkovský play in the World Juniors? Four experts weigh in with their opinion
This might seem as a redundant discussion for some but there are legitimate reasons for Juraj Slafkovský to attend World Juniors this year. Or are there? Let's have a look.
When I asked on my Twitter feed a few days ago whether Juraj Slafkovský should go to the World Juniors tournament, the opinions of people were rather fragmented. While the opinion of a fanbase is important, the question was still stuck somewhat unanswered in my head for a couple of days. I decided to reach out and ask around some people with more insight. People who have educated opinions on the matter thanks to their inside knowledge or a scouting experience.
In this piece, you will find responses to my initial question from four different hockey journalists. You'll find out it's not as obvious as it seems first hand. Therefore, my big thanks goes to:
Patrik Bexell, European Correspondent for Habs Eyes On The Prize
Matej Deraj, Scout at McKeens Hockey and Slovak Hockey Journalist
Tomáš Prokop, Slovak Hockey Insider, Covering Hockey Slovakia
Derek Neumeier, Assistant Director of Scouting at McKeens Hockey
For as long as the season went on so far, the talk about Juraj Slafkovský, Montreal Canadiens first overall draft pick of 2022 NHL Entry Draft, was mostly about his contract. Should the Canadiens burn the first year of the entry level deal Slafkovský signed in the summer? Or should he rather be sent to the AHL to play more minutes, develop under minor spotlight compared to the one in the National Hockey League?
Juraj Slafkovský stood up to this challenge and convinced the Canadiens management and the head coach, Martin St.Louis that he is a rather important factor in the Montreal line-up, albeit in the limited ice-time he got so far. In the first 9 games of the season, where he was eligible to play without burning the first year of his ELC, he scored 3 goals while only averaging 11 minutes of the actual time on ice per game. He also only got power-play time in his 5th game of the season, against the team from St.Louis and immediately rewarded a coach St.Louis with the confidence by scoring a power-play goal.
All that led Montreal to believe that it's totally fine for the development of Juraj Slafkovský to stay under the sight of NHL coaches and play against the best opposition there is, although probably not at the time on ice quantity he would prefer. He showed progression during that nine game stint and that was all the coaching staff and management needed to see. For context, Dallas Stars coach Pete DeBoer had a very insightful quote about the same situation Slafkovský was in, given Dallas had also a similar decision on their hands to make regarding a 19-year old Wyatt Johnston.
“Sometimes you see from young players, they pop early in camp and as the pace picks up and things get tougher, their games slide a little bit. I thought it was the opposite with Johnston. I thought every day out there, he got more comfortable (and) every time he got more comfortable, he looked better.
The tougher the games got as the preseason went on, the better he was.”
Johnston stayed with Dallas and burned his first year of an entry level contract. Big part of doing so was his ability to raise his level as the competition grew.
You could make a case that Juraj Slafkovský started rather slower and game by game showed similar progression like Wyatt Johnston, being capable to hold his own defensively first and also contribute on offense at times. I had mentioned before my inclination for Wyatt Johnston to stay on the Stars roster past the nine game threshold and one of the arguments was the World Juniors.
Say his performances take a dip during the season, Dallas has the opportunity to send him to play for Canada in an international competition against his peers to reinforce his self-confidence rather than send him back to the CHL. Even Craig Button mentioned his name within Canada preliminary roster projection, albeit with an asterisk.
However, the situation with Slafkovský is slightly different. While Johnston is one year older, this season is his first among professionals in comparison to Slafkovský, who not only played 31 games in Finnish Liiga last season (and scoring 5 goals, 10 points) but was also an integral part of Slovak's men team at the World Championships six months ago and more notably, named the Most Valuable Player of the whole Olympic tournament in February. Yes, it was without NHL players, but make no mistake, that is still quite a feat for a 17-year old to achieve.
“I think there is obviously more to gain for Slovakia as a team to have Slafkovský there, but for him as a player, I think there are mainly things to lose. What if he isn't as dominant as expected, what if he struggles? Development wise I don't think it's a win either, as he is better off playing against men. Especially as he seems to have the confidence to do it. Things would be much different if he lacked confidence but he clearly isn't.”
I've asked this same question Matej Deraj, Patrik's scouting colleague at McKeens Hockey and also a contributor for Slovak daily newspaper Šport. To make matters interesting, his response was slightly different:
“If he is, in fact, released to the World Juniors, I think it might be beneficial for him. Slafkovský has always played great in the National Team. He would get a prime spot on the Slovak team, play big minutes and be the expected offensive leader. Meeting with his peers again, being in a different atmosphere and playing top line minutes for a change could be a refreshing change for the young Slovak. He could gain a lot of confidence. The last Olympics have helped him so much in his progress, so the World Juniors could have a similar effect on him.”
As an European import, Montreal has the luxury of potentially sending Slafkovský just a level down to Laval, still featuring in a professional league as opposed to, say, Wyatt Johnston, whose only option was to go back to juniors. That is why I've tweeted previously that I personally believe Slafkovský would probably be better off if he's sent to the AHL this season, plays against men and most importantly, plays 20+ minutes every game in every situation to better adjust and improve in the facets of the game he will be needed for Canadiens in years to come.
Montreal took a different approach with him, which I genuinely respect as it's solely their decision to make. They believe he has all the tools to stick around in the NHL and be a factor. So, according to Patrik Bexell, any type of junior hockey would be an unnecessary step back. Patrik explains further:
“On a personal level I don't think he has much more to prove playing against juniors again, he has passed that hurdle already. If Montreal didn't believe in him in the first place, he would have been sent to the AHL, and if that was the case, I think he would have gone to the World Juniors.”
Given Slafkovský is seemingly a staple on the NHL roster now, World Juniors are out of the question according to both Patrik Bexell but also Matej Deraj. Both share the opinion that the Canadiens won't send Slafkovský to play World Juniors if he's on the NHL roster.
Tomáš Prokop, a hockey insider from Slovakia and like Deraj, journalist for Sport confirms this assumption but adds his little tidbit about how his usage could be an indicator whether Montreal lets Slafkovský go to the World Juniors:
“If Slafkovský continues to play spare minutes on the fourth line, I think he's better off going to the World Juniors, if only for getting more self-confidence, but that depends solely on the plan Montreal has with him. If they plan to utilize him more than they did so far, I think they won't let him go.”
But the same logic could've been applied to his current teammate Kirby Dach, who was a considerable factor on the NHL team and yet, he was still sent to the World Juniors by his former club, Chicago Blackhawks as a 19-year old, one and a half year later after he was drafted and already with 64 NHL games under his belt from the previous season.
Yes, it ended rather unfortunately for Dach who suffered an injury, but I still think there is an actual chance for Juraj Slafkovský being sent to World Juniors, the same as for Wyatt Johnston, but it's mostly connected with their respective potential dips in performances. Fans in Dallas and Montreal should hope nothing like that happens and these teenagers stay with the team for the whole year, naturally.
“I expect him to move up in the Canadiens lineup, play more minutes and earn a bigger role. I don't think they should send him to the WJC unless he's not with the first team,” Deraj says.
There is still much to be desired from Juraj Slafkovský on the NHL level though, not only to be a tad more disciplined as he just received his first NHL suspension, but especially in his contributions at 5v5 play. I know, small sample size and everything but he's far from finished product offensively and it's questionable whether current usage of him as a fourth-liner is optimal.
On the other hand, you could argue that he's only fulfilling duties from the coaching staff, because defensively? He's definitely making an impact, as Montreal only allows 2.11 Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes of 5v5 play when Slafkovský is on the ice in comparison to almost a one expected 5v5 goal more (3.04) when he's not.
Data visualization by HockeyViz.com
Just a small reminder, this data set doesn't include the most recent Montreal 5-2 win against Vancouver, in which they scored four 5v5 goals and added a power-play tally while conceding two 5v5 goals, all without Juraj Slafkovský, who is currently serving his two game suspension.
The argument for sending Juraj Slafkovský to the World Juniors is two-fold. First, it's a certain confidence booster. Development is very tricky and during the lengths and hardness of the NHL season, young prospects could be forgiven to have some ups and downs along the way. Participating in a short-term competition could provide some clarity to Slafkovský as far as his development is concerned, if he sees first hand how he is capable of dominating his peers, especially offensively. It could prove to him he is on the right track to become a complete player and NHL star, potentially even though the results are not there yet on the NHL level.
Another factor could be a motivation to play for one last time in this age category with his buddies Šimon Nemec, Filip Mešár, Adam Sýkora and other young high potential Slovak players and future draftees in Dalibor Dvorský, Alex Čiernik or Jakub Chromiak. The Slovak team could very well attack a medal position with this kind of squad and I wouldn't underestimate this factor, as we can probably expect both Šimon Nemec (although he is also playing against men for a third straight year) and Filip Mešár to participate.
I thought I was the only one considering this factor, but Tomáš Prokop does the same.
“It could help him (being at the World Juniors) tremendously from a mental perspective. Slovak players born in 2004 year is a very tight-knit group of close friends who cheer for one another. It was obvious when Slafkovský closely monitored the U18 tournament in Piešťany, where the Slovak selection advanced to the elite world group.”
It's questionable though whether his personal motivation would override his team-first mentality as he's getting into the groove for the Canadiens and wants to be a key NHL contributor as soon as possible.
Would Hockey Slovakia even try to make an effort to lure Juraj Slafkovský to shine under the Slovak flag and possibly play against Shane Wright, his main competitor going into the 2022 draft? Matej Deraj doesn't think so.
“I think the federation might talk to Slafkovský about his potential coming, but at the end of the day, it's up to the Canadiens. If he plays at the World Juniors, it won't be because of Hockey Slovakia involvement, in my opinion.”
Also to bolster the argument against
(for the chaos people, it's actually an argument for), was there ever a player participating in World Juniors tournament who was at the same time reigning Olympic MVP? I'm positive there wasn't and it's plausible that there never will be. Otherwise, we might see a little bit of history in the making in a month or so.
That is why I think it's pretty intriguing debate to have. Are you in team Just Stay In The NHL? Or would you want to see Slafkovský play against his peers during an international competition for one last time? Or are you a
total weirdo type who would send him to the AHL and not let him even play the World Juniors?
Whenever I'm not totally sure about these kind of things, I prefer the option which is most fun, because sports are meant to be just that. I admit, I might be little biased as a Slovak, but wouldn't it be such a amusing experience to see Juraj Slafkovský play in the U20 World Juniors Tournament and then improve his scoring and overall play as a direct result of a confidence boost from the WJC?
Because to me, that is the most entertaining option out there. Could this also be the best for his development though? Derek Neumeier, former Stars prospect guru at Defending Big D and now Assistant Director of Scouting at McKeens Hockey weighs in as well:
"Every time this question comes up for a prospect, I always think of like this: what is in the best long-term interest for the prospect? And in Slafkovsky's case, I think going to the World Juniors is the right call. Slovakia has been a small fish in the international hockey pond for a long time, but they could field a roster at this year's WJC that could legitimately challenge for a medal. And Juraj would be the leader of that team, which would be a very beneficial experience for him. He's still learning and growing in the NHL too, but a WJC appearance this year would be a unique opportunity.
Now you probably understand why was this question stuck in my head for a couple of days. Asking some people whose opinion I respect and trust in just proved me what I was thinking before. There is no obvious right answer here, because the question itself has multiple layers. Are we looking at a short-term picture or thinking long-term development? And even doing so, isn't the best way still up for discussion?
Let me ask you, the fans, now. Whether you cheer for the Habs, Slovak National Team or you're a hockey fan in general. What do you think is the best option for Juraj Slafkovský and Montreal Canadiens here?
A lot can be clarified by Juraj Slafkovský and Montreal Canadiens themselves by their respective play in the coming weeks. The discussion should be all about the correct usage, development and long-term picture though. After all, even though he oozes charisma and is already built like a tree, he's still an 18-year old boy.
Title picture from Getty Images
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