MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens are winless through four preseason games, but the lack of results has not led to a sense of panic from head coach Martin St-Louis.
“How do you measure success?” asked St-Louis. “If you only think you’re winning when you’re getting the result you want, you get lost in the process a little bit. I feel like if I start from day 1, take a picture from 9000 feet above and look where we are now, we’re winning.”
It’s an optimistic, if not necessary approach given the slew of young prospects currently at camp, particularly the first-overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft: Juraj Slafkovsky.
It’s no secret that Slafkovsky’s play throughout camp has been underwhelming, an opinion that is shared by general manager Kent Hughes. He’s shown flashes of brilliance but is yet to put together a complete game that would convince the team he’s ready to play in the NHL.
However, when it comes to Slafkovsky’s development, the stated goal was never to get him in the NHL as soon as possible, but rather, to develop a player that would eventually become a dominant force with the Canadiens.
“If we do what we said when we drafted him, we weren’t looking for the best 18-year-old,” said Hughes. “We were looking for the best NHL player down the road, and I don’t think we do that without making the best decision for him, whether it’s the popular decision or not, we’re going to do what we believe is right.”
The realistic approach, one that was rarely followed under the previous regime, opens up the door to Slafkovsky starting the season in the AHL, where he can be given an abundance of minutes in a setting that allows for mistakes and growth.
But as St-Louis explained, no decisions have been made. They’re still in the process of evaluating Slafkovsky’s NHL readiness, a process that will likely continue through the end of the preseason.
“He’s right in the middle of it the development process,” said St-Louis. “Tonight will be a good test for him. As we progress to the end of preseason we’re going to see deeper NHL lineups. I’m looking forward to seeing what that looks like for him. He’s been exposed to a lot, he’s trying to take it all in and put his best foot forward.”
Slafkovsky, who is set to play with Kirby Dach and Mike Hoffman against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night, struggled in his first taste of preseason action, getting outshot, out-chanced in both games he featured, resulting in below-replacement numbers from a statistical point of view.
With Dach creating space down the middle of the ice, Slafkovsky will have a good opportunity to generate more scoring chances in the offensive, which should lead to an influx in individual scoring chances. As it stands, Slafkovsky has taken just three shots at 5v5, none of which were of the high-danger variety.
He’ll also feature on the second power-play unit, a situation which should also lead to more open ice, and thus, more chances for Slafkovsky.
It must be noted, however, he’s only been given 26 minutes of even-strength ice time in his first two games, with only one offensive-zone faceoff to his record.
Meanwhile, he has started nine shifts in the neutral zone and 12 shifts in the defensive zone, not exactly usage that is conducive to producing at the professional level.
But regardless of the usage, the possibility of playing in the AHL, or all the other eternal pressure facing Slafkovsky, the harsh reality of the situation is that time is running out to earn a spot on the Montreal Canadiens’ opening-night roster.
“We’re nine days away from the season opener,” said St-Louis. “Every day leading up to that are important days. Tonight is an opportunity with the lineup they have to evaluate our guys, where we are as a team. Every game speaks to us, tells us where we’re at, and what we need to focus on.”