The Montreal Canadiens sent shockwaves through the Bell Center on July 7 when they selected the forward Juraj Slafkovsky with the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.
Forward Shane Wright, who was selected No. 4 by the Seattle Kraken, was the expected top pick, but Montreal went with the 18-year-old from Slovakia. Since the draft was held in Montreal, the Canadiens’ first No. 1 pick since Doug Wickenheiser in 1980 has become an instant star among the city’s fans.
While expectations for the Canadiens this season aren’t high, there is anticipation to see if Slafkovsky was worthy of the No. 1 pick.
He has played in two of the Canadiens’ three preseason games, but should he start the NHL season?
That’s the question NHL.com writers Dan Rosen and Mike Morreale tackle in this installment of State Your Case.
Rosen: Slafkovsky is 18 years old and weighs 238 pounds. He is the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. The Montreal Canadiens are rebuilding. They’re in no rush to play Slafkovsky, but he’s built like an NHL player and clearly has the talent to be one, so why not learn on the job, at least for a while? The question we are discussing here is whether Slafkovsky will play in the NHL this season? The answer is a definite yes, in my opinion. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t also play for Laval in the American Hockey League. The Canadiens can decide Slafkowski belongs in the NHL today and change their minds tomorrow. The proximity of their AHL team to Montreal, just across the Des Prairies River, and the fact that Slafkovsky is allowed to play in that league as an 18-year-old gives the Canadiens the freedom to move him. I think there’s something to be said for getting to know the NHL game, understanding the nuances, the smaller rink, the physicality and speed while playing and, yes, making mistakes. Give Slafkowski a chance early in the season and he may never leave Montreal.
Morreale: Not all No. 1 picks are created equal, and while Slafkovsky has the stature of an NHL player, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s ready for the rigors of an 82-game season. There is no shame in spending his first pro season in the AHL, adjusting to the smaller ice in North America, building strength, improving his skills while gaining more confidence. Sure, he averaged 14:11 of ice time in 31 games last season with TPS in the Liiga, the top professional men’s league in Finland, but he didn’t necessarily dominate (five goals, five assists). The Canadians are in a young movement and their best player, the goaltender Carey Price, is not expected to be able to play due to complications in his full recovery from knee surgery. I think it would be wise not to rush Slafkovsky to the NHL in 2022-23.
Rosen: Everything Mike says makes sense. The Canadiens aren’t fooling themselves into thinking they’re ready to compete for the Stanley Cup. Slafkovsky doesn’t need to be in the NHL this season. But that’s one more reason Slafkowski should be on a long leash early this season, learning under coach Martin St. Louis, a Hall of Fame player who has the right kind of mentorship for young players. Look forward Cole Caulfield and the progress he’s made since St. Louis took over last season. Certainly, Caufield is more suited to the type of player that St. Louis and Slafkovsky don’t, but that doesn’t mean the coach can’t have the same impact on the No. 1 pick. Slafkovsky has played in the Olympics, the IIHF World Championship and professionally in Finland. He did well in all these stops. Allowing him the freedom to play his game and make mistakes at the NHL level will benefit him more than allowing him the freedom to play his game and make mistakes in the AHL. And, again, if it gets overwhelming, the Canadiens always have the option of sending him to Laval, but he shouldn’t start there.
Morreale: I agree with Dan that Slafkovsky could learn under St. Louis, similar to how Caufield progressed to Hockey Hall of Famer, but the NHL is not a developmental league. It is for players who are already capable of playing long minutes in big moments and in stressful situations where quick decisions usually determine the results. That would be a huge ask for a European player who has yet to experience survival of the fittest in the world’s biggest hockey league. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Slafkovsky win a few games early in the season with the Canadiens, but as we know, this will be St. Louis’ first full season. Louis and general manager Kent Hughes who are working together on a rebuild that is expected to take at least two years. Why rush the No. 1 prospect on your boat? Instead, have him learn and develop in the AHL and let his entry-level contract languish and not start until next season. That scenario would also give the teenager a chance to represent Slovakia one final time at the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship in December with compatriot and Canadian prospect Filip Mesar.