When the Montreal Canadiens announced their lines ahead of Tuesday night’s matchup against the Nashville Predators, first-overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky was in a familiar position: the fourth line.
In total, Slafkovsky has faced 13 different line combinations this season and has spent the most amount of time alongside Jake Evans (1G, 6A) and Michael Pezzetta (2G, 1A), the duo which greeted him on the fourth line against the Predators.
Predictably, the trio failed to produce much offence, although they did play fairly well, at least relative to their teammates. They controlled more than 70 percent of the shots and were expected to control over 90 percent of the goals, but seeing as they played a little over 5 minutes together at 5v5, the opportunities to help the team were few and far between.
But despite the uptick in underlying numbers, it has become clear that playing Slafkovsky on the fourth line is not conducive to helping his development.
To get a better idea of his results with various teammates, we can take a look at the numbers from the combinations involving Slafkovsky that were kept together for more than 20 minutes.
As evidenced below, for the most part, lines featuring Slafkovsky have struggled to control the shots (CF%), the high-danger chances (HDCF%), and the expected goals (xGF%).
Owing to a recent drop in confidence, and consequently, his overall level of play, the only combination that seems to suggest some sustainability at 5v5 is when Slafkovsky is played alongside Josh Anderson and Jake Evans.
The lack of chemistry with the aforementioned line combinations leads us to an important question.
What’s the best approach regarding Slafkovsky’s development in the second half of the season, for both the player and the Canadiens?
Unlike Joel Armia, Mike Hoffman, and Anderson, it seems Slafkovsky is unlikely to receive an audition on the top line, which leaves very few options for St-Louis, especially since Sean Monahan, one of the few players in the lineup that can drive the play and create space for his linemates in the neutral and offensive zone, is currently injured.
The Canadiens are back home after a tough trip. See how the next couple of weeks go. Whether it’s Slafkovsky or other younger players, I could see time in Laval if Montreal isn’t able to right the ship. Better environment with focus on development.
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) January 4, 2023
TSN analyst Darren Dreger suggests Slafkovsky would be better off in the AHL for the time being, stating that it’s a better environment with a focus on development.
Laval’s struggles aside, it’s safe to assume Laval Rocket head coach Jean-Francois Houle could provide Slafkovsky with a healthy dose of ice time, not to mention prime minutes on the first power play unit.
But there’s also another important factor to consider.
If Slafkovsky remains on the Canadiens roster for the next two games, he will be one year closer to being a UFA, seeing as 40 games count as an accrued season in the NHL.
Technically, Slafkovsky only has 33 games under his belt, but the time he spent on the roster while injured and suspended also count toward the 40-game limit.
Group 3 UFA
As per Puck Pedia:
This is the most common type of UFA. A player becomes an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) if their current contract ends after either 7 Accrued Seasons or they are 27 or older as of June 30.
An Accrued Season is defined as a year in which a skater is on an NHL roster for at least 40 games (30 games for Goalies). If a player is on the NHL team’s roster but injured, the team’s games count towards the 40-game minimum.
There is a decision to be made by Kent Hughes and Co., but given the impending deadline and Slafkovsky’s current usage, it should not be a difficult decision by any means. There’s little to no value in keeping Slafkovsky in the NHL if it’ll lead to the Slovak forward becoming an unrestricted free agent a year sooner than expected.
Unless the Canadiens somehow manage to find a better use for Slafkovsky in the NHL, all signs point to a confidence-boosting assignment with the Laval Rocket shortly.
All Statistics are 5v5 unless otherwise noted, via Natural Stat Trick.