With three points in his last four games, Montreal Canadiens rookie Juraj Slafkovsky‘s promotion away from the fourth line has led to a significant improvement in production.
But has it been enough to convince the Canadiens he should remain in the NHL rather than sending him to the World Junior Championship to play for Team Slovakia?
The key to his recent success is explained by a few important key factors.
Not only is he playing with better linemates, but he’s also finally enjoying a little consistency, both when it comes to ice time and the players he shares the ice with.
Going into the 17th game of the season Slafkovsky had been used on 9 different line combinations. But now that he’s playing on a line with Sean Monahan and Josh Anderson, Slafkovsky has shown signs of a newfound sense of confidence and anticipation.
His goal against the Flames was the perfect example.
Not only did he follow up the play to capitalize on Monahan’s forecheck, but Slafkovsky was also the main conduit for the rush, providing Kaiden Guhle with an outlet pass option that was crucial to transitioning quickly into the offensive zone.
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Unfortunately, Monahan’s injury put an end to the experiment, but not before we were given a glimpse of what Slafkovsky can do when playing in the top six.
The line controlled well over 60 percent of the shots during their shifts, an impressive uptick in puck control given that Slafkovsky was hovering around the 47 percent mark before his promotion.
But it’s not just his numbers that have improved.
After a relatively tentative start to his career in the offensive zone, Slafkovsky has enjoyed more scoring chances since the start of the month.
And it’s not just because he’s been assigned an additional 4-5 shifts per game, although that certainly helps. But he’s also making an effort to drive the play up the ice, and he’s doing it with confidence.
Neutral Zone Play
Slafkovsky still needs to improve his shot rate.
As it stands, he’s 11th on the team with 5.8 shots per 60, which places him behind players such as Arber Xhekaj and Evgenii Dadonov, but as we saw in the example above, those shooting opportunities will be a little more bountiful as he continues to receive more shifts per game.
If he can maintain his stalwart presence in the neutral zone, as evidenced by the clip below, where he intercepts the puck and quickly transitions it into the offensive zone, his budding anticipation will lead to sustained shifts in the offensive zone, and consequently, an uptick in shots per 60.
We saw another perfect example of his growing sense of anticipation in the second period of the Canadiens’ 4-2 win over the Seattle Kraken.
It wasn’t a mind-boggling play by Slafkovsky, but he gained control of the puck long enough to quickly give Christian Dvorak and Anderson a prime scoring opportunity, which led to the game-winning goal.
And while we saw flashes of brilliance here and there from Slafkovsky, we’re starting to see something a little more encouraging: dominant shifts.
For example, midway through the second period against the Flames, Slafkosvky had one of the best shifts in his young NHL career.
It included a pass interception in the defensive zone, a controlled exit, a shot attempt, a quick pass off the cycle, another shot attempt, a follow-up that led to a prime scoring opportunity off yet another puck interception, and over 30 seconds of sustained pressure in the offensive zone.
Keep a close eye on No.20 as the clip unfolds.
It’s only natural Slafkovsky’s confidence is growing by leaps and bounds now that he’s being trusted with better teammates and improved ice time, but it does go to show the young man probably wasn’t being placed in a situation that was conducive to improving when he was toiling away on the fourth line.
If the Canadiens want him to create an identity in the NHL, there’s no better way than doing it than by giving him the tools and the opportunities necessary.
In the last few games, not only have the Canadiens given him the opportunity, Slafkovsky has taken advantage of the trust placed in him by head coach Martin-St Louis and perhaps convinced Kent Hughes and Co. that he’s better off continuing his development in the NHL rather than heading east for the World Junior Championship.