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Habs Have Unique Opportunity With Slafkovsky’s Development

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Montreal Canadiens forward Juraj Slafkovsky

The Montreal Canadiens will have an interesting opportunity to dictate a unique developmental path for their first overall pick, Juraj Slafkovsky and they should take advantage of it:

The Canadiens will have many options when it comes to how they’ll want to utilize Slafkovsky in his first season in North America, a unique set of circumstances that have been a rarity for players picked first in an NHL Draft. Over the last 20 years, 13 players from Canadian Major Junior were selected at first overall, two were selected out of the NCAA and the other five from European leagues or the USHL.

When drafted out of the CHL, a team’s options are limited; it’s either NHL or back to junior. That usually prompts teams, especially teams in the midst of a full rebuild, to bring their player up to the NHL right away. In other cases, like we’ve seen with the likes of Auston Matthews or Rasmus Dahlin, though they were eligible to play anywhere they liked outside of the NHL, they were simply too good to be denied a spot on the starting roster.

A total of five players picked first overall in the last 20 drafts had the ability to play in the AHL at age 18, but none did. Defencemen Owen Power and Erik Johnson are the only players in that time span to be picked first overall and not start in the NHL at 18 years of age. Excluding Eric Lindros, who didn’t start in the NHL at 18 due to outside factors, the last forward to be selected at first overall to not jump straight into the NHL at 18 was Mats Sundin; who stayed an extra year with Djugardens before joining the Quebec Nordiques the following season.

It’s a very unique opportunity that presents itself to the Montreal Canadiens, as Juraj Slafkovsky is not projected to be a generational talent. That being said, the pressure to play a first overall pick in the NHL right away is quite strong, due to the precedent elaborated above.

The Canadiens will have the option to play Slafkovsky in Montreal or with the Laval Rocket this season and could be prompted to send him to the AHL at certain points in the season. As general manager Kent Hughes has expressed his desire to focus on development this season, rather than winning at all costs, it’ll be important that they take the best steps for Slafkovsky’s development and not look to validate their selection of the young man by starting him in the NHL if he’s not yet ready.

“We’d like him in North America. We’ll be fluid in terms of that decision and flexible,” Hughes said after development camp in July. “We’re hopeful that, wherever he starts, based on how he looks over the remainder of this summer and in training camp, if he shows that he’s ready to play in Montreal, he’ll play in Montreal. If not, he’ll play in Laval.”

There could be a reality where Slafkovsky plays half the season in the AHL and half the season in the NHL, as he continues to get acclimated to the North American game; the Montreal Canadiens will have the luxury that other GMs have not with their first overall selections. Some could argue that 2020 1st overall pick Alexis Lafrenière, who only started to turn the corner in his development late last season, could have been better served playing sections of the last two seasons in the AHL with the Hartford Wolfpack, rather than fighting for ice time against Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider. Would things be different now if that avenue was an option? It can certainly be debated.

The expectation that Slafkovsky will dominate consistently right out of camp may be a little too high of an expectation for a player with such high potential, but such a raw game. Hughes has remained adamant that their selection at first overall last July was dictated by who they believe will be the best 23/24-year-old, not who would be the best player as soon as this season. In that regard, it’s Slafkovsky’s developmental needs, and not his draft status, that should dictate what the Canadiens decide to do with him.

“We aren’t determining who the best 18-year-old player is, we’re looking at who could be the best player at 22, 23 and 24 years old,” said Hughes in a press conference right before the 2022 NHL Draft. “We want a player who could help us build a winning team year after year.”

If that long-term payoff means that the youngster breaks from 30 years of tradition and starts in Laval this year, then so be it. This management team has continued to show they’re willing to think outside the box and go beyond the confines of the status quo. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them take advantage of this unique developmental opportunity to ensure they get their prime power forward of the future in the right environment for him to reach his potential.

It’s still very early in training camp to make calls on a player’s future, but Slafkovsky will indeed need to pick up his game in order to live up to his draft rank. That being said, he’s got lots of runway to improve and the best developmental group the organization has had in decades to help him along. It’s time to let Hughes, St. Louis and co. go to work on helping Slafkovsky reach what they believed to be the best top-end potential of the 2022 Draft.

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