With the World Juniors coming up soon, the Habs will have to decide if they’re going to loan Juraj Slafkovsky to play for Slovakia in the tournament. Should they do that? Our writers offer up their thoughts.
Terry Costaris: Whether or not to have Slafkovsky play for Team Slovakia at the World Juniors is not a simple answer. This is a really complicated question given how well he has recently played on the Montreal Canadiens’ second line.
Let me start with the pro arguments.
First, I was one of the few people who suggested that he play in in the CHL for a year and absolutely dominate it. It would have given him a major psychological edge from which he could draw from when things invariably got tough in the NHL.
Second, playing him on the fourth line 10 minutes a night this season is neither in his nor Montreal’s best interests.
Third, the thinking is that in this Atlantic Canada tourney, he will get massive minutes to dominate against his peers.
Fourth, the World Juniors meshes well with Montreal’s schedule as the Habs have a bit of a lighter schedule during this event. So, from a timing perspective, this is a great fit for Slafkovsky.
These four pluses seem to say that having this top Canadiens’ ‘prospect’ play in the World Juniors is a good idea. However, there are some strong counterarguments to consider.
First, remember way back when you revisited your high school after a few months into your first year of university? Back in my day, we had a “commencement” in October where we received our diplomas. Returning to my high school, was rather surreal. I was so surprised at how “out of place” I felt. Once I was gone, I was gone.
I got a feeling that Slafkovsky, who’s now living the NHL life, might be too “mature” to hang around junior players. The ship for his development in this regard may now have passed.
Second, there is an elevated risk of this former first-overall player getting injured. There always is a risk in these types of tournaments but Slafkovsky will have a major target on his back as all of the prospects will be trying to measure up against last year’s first overall draft pick.
If Slafkovsky does not absolutely dominate, and there is a good chance that this may be the case, he may come back less confident than he entered this tournament. Many scouts believe that if he were eligible in this year’s draft, he would have been picked at around five or six.
Third, shutting Slafkovsky down will not be as difficult as it would be if he played on a team with far more depth like Team Canada where talents such as Connor Bedard’s play on just one of four absolutely lethal lines.
Fourth, let’s also remember that post-World Juniors, the Montreal Canadiens, from January to April, will have the second toughest schedule in the entire NHL. Slafkovsky will be tired starting from the gate in what will be a very gruelling marathon. Nearing season’s end, both he and the Habs will be quite fatigued and as a result, find themselves more vulnerable to injuries.
Are these four risks worth taking just to build his confidence when the better solution is to simply have him play on the second line going forward?
I believe that the ultimate decision needs to be made by Slafkovsky and his agent. If he is not 100% excited about playing for Team Slovakia, then he should stay in Montreal.
If I were his agent, I would advise Slafkovsky that the junior hockey ship has passed and it’s now in his best interests to stay in Montreal and hone his craft by being bumped up to the second line.
If Martin St. Louis is opposed to this, Kent Hughes needs to step in with a compromise. For example, how about Slafkovsky play at least three shifts a night on this line? There has to be some win-win solution for all parties involved. Just a thought.
Allan Katz: There are numerous reasons for Slafkovsky to NOT JOIN the Slovakian Jr. team; 1) Lose/Lose scenario – If Juraj, by chance or minor injuries, struggles it will all be for naught… nothing. If Juraj dominates it can be said he’s overcoming a man versus boy situation so what did you expect? 2) He will be the intense focus of his competitors, like never before, and some similar-sized young men might decide an elbow or a stick or some other small-time violence should be visited upon him, over and over again. 3) Does the young man even want to play down multiple levels? Etcetera.
Yet there is one reason to do this that is somewhat intriguing; the reuniting of Batman and Robin. Slafkovsky and Filip Mesar are best friends. Filip is somewhat struggling in the OHL and a boost with his buddy would be quite the tonic. The Habs brass might contemplate what this reunion might do not only for Slafkovsky but for Mesar (remember, he was a first-round pick) and the team’s and possibly this duo’s future. Mesar is at least two years away from the NHL, but this opportunity and the unique benefits of pairing these two make the idea more intriguing than really any other reason. Wouldn’t bet on this outcome, but it does add a little sparkle to the idea.
Brian La Rose: Right now, the Habs are taking a very similar approach with Slafkovsky as they did with Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Sheltered minutes, he holds his own, shows a couple of flashes here and there, and it’s a decent rookie season. It’s also the same approach the Rangers, Jeff Gorton’s former team, took with Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko in their 18-year-old seasons. What do they have in common? They’re all still vastly underachieving.
Top offensive players, of which Slafkovsky is supposed to one day be, need to be top offensive players. Especially in his case, where he wasn’t really one last year outside of a couple of tournaments so it’s not like he’s had a lot of recent practice in that situation. It’s hard to be a top offensive player in limited action. He’d get that chance in this tournament.
What’s wrong with him going and being the focal point of an offence for the first time in quite a while? What’s wrong with him going and having some offensive success, success that he’s not going to have this early in his NHL career? Yes, the World Juniors isn’t the same level as the NHL. That’s kind of the point.
Philosophically speaking, it’s hard to develop a top liner by playing him in the bottom six with limited power play time. That’s why Slafkovsky should be in Laval right now, seeing extended minutes and then being recalled to assess his progress from time to time. The World Juniors would be the next best thing. Let him be the go-to guy that plays in key situations and Slovakia could be a good enough team for him to have some success. If that’s what the Habs want Slafkovsky to be one day, doesn’t he need to get some practice actually doing that? I know where he’s not going to get that chance this season (Montreal) so they’ll have to send him elsewhere to get it and the World Juniors is as good a place as any.
Will they do that? I’m not holding my breath, especially with the injuries but from a development standpoint, it would certainly be beneficial for him.
Kevin Leveille: I think the Habs should absolutely send Slafkovsky to the World Juniors and there are three excellent reasons why. The first of which is that sending him is risk-free. The chances of him getting hurt in the tournament are as likely as if he were playing in NHL games. And while some might say an unsuccessful tournament offensively for Juraj might be detrimental to his confidence, I’ll say that I disagree with that assessment. He’s not exactly lighting it up in the NHL, and he’d be playing for a team that isn’t really expected to do much at the tournament. So he goes and doesn’t light it up, he mentally gets through that hurdle easily by putting up his production against the team’s expectations.
On the other side of that coin, he has everything to gain. Should he go there and really shine offensively while in a leadership role, this could serve to really get him going for a strong second half with the Canadiens. As injuries start to pile up in Montreal, Slafkovsky will be relied upon more and more as the season progresses. Getting an offensive touch sparked by attending a tournament against lesser competition might just be what he needs to play with more assurance.
Finally, I think this is a good idea for the Montreal Canadiens. In a season that means nothing and where the injuries are piling up, a quick look down at Laval shows a farm team that also isn’t having a very good season. If the team opens up another slot by sending Juraj, it might serve them to see what they have down there. We all know Jesse Ylonen is patiently waiting for that opportunity but does management really understand what they have in Anthony Richard and Xavier Simoneau (who is currently just on an AHL deal) who are both having excellent seasons on an unsuccessful Rocket team? What do they look like in the NHL? And I haven’t even brought up Rafael Harvey-Pinard who I’m sure could use the morale boost in what’s been a frustrating season for him. All players that could benefit from the Habs giving Juraj the chance to once again shine on the world stage. Send the kid, let him have some fun!
Daniel Marsh: Slafkovsky has been slowly acclimating himself to the rigors and speed of the NHL over the last five weeks. He has had many essential learning moments, and the results are encouraging. Over the first 21 games he has played, Slafkovsky has earned a respectable four goals and eight points. True, the big Slovak winger hasn’t strictly dominated the rookie stat lines but there is reason to believe he is starting to turn a developmental corner.
In his first 14 games of the season, Slafkovsky earned a paltry five points while seeing limited ice time on the 4th line. However, since being promoted to the second line with Sean Monahan and Josh Anderson, Juraj has started to show a more consistent game and has improved his point totals with four points in his last seven games. His ice time has started to trend upward and he is showing that he is more than capable of driving play in the right direction.
So, the question now is should the Canadiens loan him to the Slovakian World Junior Team? My answer is a resounding NO. While it would be thrilling to watch him rip apart competition that he has already surpassed developmentally, I don’t think his own development would benefit from doing so. If Slafkovsky was still mired in 4th line minutes or being scratched game after game, like Shane Wright’s first foray into the NHL, then I would probably agree that Juraj would benefit from the experience. But, Slafkovsky is not suffering from a lack of confidence at the moment. He is systematically working his way up the lineup for the Canadiens and showing the humility, maturity, and willingness to learn that got him drafted first overall last summer.
The Montreal Canadiens have said from the get-go that development is the priority this year. Slafkovsky is already developing in the correct environment and gaining confidence after every shift. I say keep him with the Canadiens because for the young man, that could be the ultimate confidence booster as he looks to continue asserting himself at the NHL level.