BUFFALO — Expectations can be a funny thing. The Montreal Canadiens may not have many, but their prospects do.
In sports, expectations often lead to disappointment. Especially when those expectations evolve to unrealistic levels.
Take Juraj Slafkovsky and Filip Mesar, for example. The two first-round picks were expected to dominate as the Montreal Canadiens faced the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night.
Lo and behold, that’s exactly what they did.
And yes, Slafkovsky showed off his physical prowess, forcing certain Sabres defencemen to re-evaluate their definition of strength, but more to the point, he made a litany of smart, yet simple plays. That may not sound like an exciting development, but it’s exactly what you want to see from the boisterous left winger.
We know he has high-end talent, but he also has a penchant for overplaying his hand, as he did early in the first period when he tried to deke four Sabres at the blueline, lost the puck, and had to scramble back into his zone while the Sabres enjoyed a high-danger scoring chance. He also failed to preserve puck control in the Sabres zone early in the third period, leading to the Sabres’ fourth goal of the game.
Now, here’s where the expectations come into play. I expect Slafkovsky to make mistakes. But I also expect him to learn from his mistakes, and there was plenty of evidence to connote Slafkovsky is a student of the game that rarely makes the same mistake twice. His defensive game will need some work, but, again, that’s to be expected.
Offensively, Slafkovsky checked all the boxes, driving the play up the ice on several occasions, not to mention displaying his ability to create chaos on the forecheck, which quickly led to the Montreal Canadiens’ second goal of the game. Whenever Slafkovsky had the puck in the offensive zone, his linemates were treated to an all-you-can-eat buffet of high-danger scoring chances.
He wasn’t excellent, but he was very good, and if you adjust your expectations, that’s a healthy sign in terms of his progression.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Mesar’s hand-eye coordination. He’s clearly the most talented stickhandler on the roster, and despite the fact that he still has some work to do when it comes to defensive awareness, Mesar clearly has all the tools to become an offensive contributor in the NHL.
L’attaque slovaque! Filip Mesar marque le 2e but des Canadiens, avec l’aide de Juraj Slafkovsky.
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) September 15, 2022
But the real star for the Canadiens was none other than Owen Beck. Sure, he scored a goal and set up another, however, it was his stalwart work in the defensive zone that truly shone brightest.
On several occasions, Beck was the last man back, covering for overeager defencemen that lost track of the play. What’s more, he kept an eye out for opportunities to turn defensive situations into scoring plays, which is exactly what he did when he assisted on Heineman’s goal.
I had the fortune of sitting beside Beck’s parents for the majority of the game, and while I was definitely amused when they told me the Toronto Maple Leafs were very interested in Beck’s services, I was also reminded of the importance of having a strong support system for these young men.
— Matt Drake (@DrakeMT) September 16, 2022
Beck is slated to head back to Mississauga this season, but given his elevated hockey sense, his defensive awareness, and his offensive touch, he’s quickly climbing the organization rankings as one of the Montreal Canadiens’ most promising prospects.
Live and Learn
On the defensive side of things, there are two players that stood out, but not necessarily for the right reasons. Mattias Norlinder struggled in the first period, playing a reluctant style of play that led to a few turnovers. But he quickly improved his form, generating several high-danger chances with his excellent deking ability, as well as saving an empty-net goal with his excellent hand-eye coordination.
The same can be said about Justin Barron, who captained the Canadiens’ squad in their 4-3 loss to the Sabres. His decision making is improving and he has a penchant for getting pucks to the net, but he still has the tendency to jump into the offensive zone at questionable times, leaving his defensive partner out in the cold.
The Canadiens prospects will have another opportunity to show their mettle tomorrow, as they face the New Jersey Devils at 7PM EST.