Montreal Canadiens forward Juraj Slafkovsky has been at the centre of an ongoing conversation regarding development, draft picks, and single-chart analysis.
It’s par for the course when discussing a player chosen first overall, regardless of the strength of the actual draft class.
For better or for worse, Slafkovsky will forever be compared to generational talents. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, they were not gifted a player like Auston Matthews, but rather, a player who was designated as a long-term project from the very get-go.
Of course, that does not absolve the team or the player of all responsibility.
But it does provide the right context when evaluating Slafkovsky’s current development, which is taking place in the NHL. That last part is important, as Slafkovsky’s presence in an NHL lineup means analysts around the league are well within their rights to evaluate his play.
That’s the other side of rushing a player into the NHL, particularly a player who does not necessarily possess elite talent, but rather, a raw skill set that can hopefully be developed to the point that the player in question can make a positive impact every night.
The scrutiny is unavoidable and intense, especially in a market like Montreal.
But when it comes to Slafkovsky’s play, there’s a clear disconnect between out-of-town analysts and Canadiens fans, which has led to an abrasive and unproductive discussion on social media.
By now, you’ve surely seen the single-chart analysis from various outlets claiming Slafkovsky has struggled.
And though the endless stream of replies from Canadiens fans claim the charts are erroneous, I’m here to confirm they’re accurate.
Or rather, they accurately portray what has happened, not necessarily what will happen.
There are some predictive metrics involved, but for the most part, the charts will provide cursory knowledge for people who have not necessarily followed a player’s development closely.
They’re a starting point for proper analysis, which requires digging deeper.
For example, if we take a look at Slafkovsky’s career stats they’re not very encouraging. In 89 games, the Montreal Canadiens have only managed to control a little over 46 percent of the shots and 45 percent of the expected goals while Slafkovsky has been on the ice.
He’s produced a meagre 1.1 points per 60 at 5v5, which is significantly lower than what oft-maligned wingers Mike Hoffman or Jonathan Drouin produced in their time with the Habs.
But Canadiens fans are well aware of the impact of playing with someone like Josh Anderson had on Slafkovsky’s numbers, which is something the charts ignore, because it’s simply not realistic to expect an algorithm to evaluate the entire context in which the numbers are generated.
With Anderson on his line, Slafkovsky has only managed to control 38 percent of the shots, 36 percent of the expected goals, and 0 percent of the actual goals. However, once we remove Anderson from the equation, those numbers jump to 48 percent, 49 percent, and 47 percent, respectively.
In other words, his stats went from well below replacement to almost treading water.
It’s not exactly the type of discussion you’d expect for a first-overall player, and there’s still a lot of room for growth in Slafkovsky’s game, but if we keep the strength of the 2022 draft class in mind, as well as the decision by the Canadiens to keep Slafkovsky in the NHL last season despite his lack of results, it’s encouraging.
As a reminder, players who don’t possess generational talent are rarely rushed to the NHL. For the most part, they ply their trade in the AHL until they can work out some of the kinks in their game. Slafkovsky has raw talent, but it was rather evident that the mechanics in his game needed work from the very moment he joined the Montreal Canadiens as an 18-year-old.
In that vein, what Slafkovsky has done since being promoted to the top six is fairly impressive. He’s learning on the fly in the best league in the world, a difficult proposition for any athlete.
Top Line Change
The most notable change happened when Martin St-Louis finally decided to give Slafkovsky an extended audition on the top line with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, as well as an increase in powerplay usage.
Interestingly, Slafkovsky’s individual rates did not change much, but his shooting efficiency almost doubled, a sign that not only is he becoming more confident in his shot, but he’s also taking advantage of his frame to exploit time and space in high-danger scoring areas, as we saw on Tuesday night against the Washington Capitals.
Instead of focusing on tips and rebounds, Slafkovsky has started to beat goaltenders with clean shots.
That’s not to say rebounds and tips are bad. They’re among some of the highest-value shots in the NHL when it comes to expected goals.
#GoHabsGo Juraj Slafkovsky scores a goal in back-to-back games. Good net-front presence to score this one.
Ylonen is looking good on that top line while Caufield is gone.
Habs lead 3-2. pic.twitter.com/CLQyMm9Kju
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) December 23, 2023
But what we’re seeing recently is a player who is starting to refine his skill set, slowly yet surely.
And his impact on the top line cannot be ignored. Without Slafkovsky on their line, Suzuki and Caufield controlled just 43 percent of the high-danger shots, well below what you’d expect from a team’s best line. Consequently, their expected goals hovered slightly above 45 percent.
With Slafkovsky, the expected goals percentage has risen to the point that it’s above 50 percent, a massive improvement powered by their increased ability to control high-danger scoring chances, high-danger goals, and overall shots.
As a reminder, the Habs own one of the lowest expected goal percentages in the NHL, at just 45.5 percent. It’s the fourth-worst result in the league, which puts a little more shine on what the top line has managed to do since Slafkovsky was added to the mix. Playing on a bad team tends to lead to bad results.
However, Slafkovsky’s promotion means that the Montreal Canadiens can finally ice a top line that won’t necessarily get dominated on a nightly basis, something that no other player has managed to do alongside Suzuki and Caufield, except for centre Kirby Dach.
With Slafkovsky on their line, both Suzuki and Caufield have enjoyed sustainable results.
C'est comme ça qu'on marque un but
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) February 7, 2024
If there’s one obvious criticism in his game, it’s that Slafkovsky needs to take more shots, an issue that has plagued him since his rookie season. Young players tend to automatically defer to their linemates, taking a year or two to get to the point where they’re comfortable taking the shot during odd-man rushes.
When your linemate happens to be a player like Caufield, deferring is rarely a bad choice.
Now that he’s starting to find the back of the net with a little more regularity, Slafkovsky’s confidence has improved by leaps and bounds. He’s always been a very confident young man off the ice, but the same could not be said when evaluating his on-ice play.
A good chance for Slafkovsky in OT. The confidence is growing. pic.twitter.com/bUjm2Gzc4U
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) January 28, 2024
It’s also a matter of opportunity.
Slafkovsky was rarely the target of choice for powerplay quarterback Mike Matheson.
Now that Sean Monahan has been traded to the Winnipeg Jets, Matheson has no choice but to modify his tendencies to open up more passing lanes that can reach Slafkovsky.
And that’s great news for the developing Slovak.
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) February 7, 2024
To sum things up, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with out-of-town analysts pointing out that Slafkovsky has had a difficult start to his NHL career. The entire scope of his work does not paint a very pretty picture.
But now that he’s playing with talented linemates, is being used more often on the powerplay, and has had time to work on some of the finer aspects of his game, the results have improved.
And that’s where the disconnect comes into play.
But just like the analysts cannot ignore certain games when evaluating Slafkovsky’s play, Montreal Canadiens fans are also well within their rights to provide the necessary details that allow people to get a better understanding of the current situation.
Yes, Slafkovsky has struggled, especially when he was used alongside Anderson, and there’s nothing wrong with pointing that out.
But we’d be delving into the realm of intellectual dishonesty if we ignored the context in which those numbers were produced.
Simply put, since he was promoted to the top line and given proper powerplay usage, Slafkovsky’s development has progressed significantly.
All Montreal Canadiens statistics are 5v5 unless otherwise noted, via Natural Stat Trick.