BUFFALO – It might not be the real thing yet, but Juraj Slafkovsky was worth the $10 admission to see him play at the Buffalo Prospects Challenge this past weekend.
From a physical first game to a big win on Sunday, Slafkovsky got his first taste of “NHL” hockey in a Canadiens uniform two months after going first overall at the 2022 draft in Montreal. In the eyes of many, Slafkovsky was a surprising first overall pick after Shane Wright dominated the conversation for a couple of years.
Nobody felt the need to validate the selection more than Slafkovsky himself.
“It’s nice to be first or second overall, but you still have to prove it,” Slafkovsky said after the first game. “So I just focused more on training and didn’t really care about anything from the outside. I didn’t really think like, “Wow, now I’m No. 1. That’s nice. I don’t need to train.'”
If there’s anything Slafkovsky has, it’s self-confidence in his own play. Once he started to get more comfortable playing against men, especially internationally, he started to really find his footing and fight his way up the draft rankings. His play at the Olympics, where he took the MVP title despite being one of the youngest players in the tournament, was evidence of that. Slafkovsky believes in himself and is also self-aware enough to know his flaws and what he needs to do to improve.
Slafkovsky isn’t a lock to go straight to the NHL, something that hasn’t happened to a forward taken first overall since 1991 when Eric Lindros held out and didn’t play for Quebec. The year before that, Mats Sundin stayed in Sweden to help his team win a league title, and did just that.
He’s making a case to make the Habs out of training camp, though, which wouldn’t be surprising for a team that became the first to finish 32nd in league history.
Slafkovsky had an eventful 2021-22 campaign, posting 10 points in 31 regular season games with top Finnish league team TPS. Internationally, he played at the U-18 and U-20 levels and played in multiple men’s hockey tournaments, highlighted by his run in Beijing. Slafkovsky proved he could play against men, and after adding an extra 11 pounds to his frame – standing at 6-foot-3 and 239 pounds now – he’s physically ready to take the next step, wherever that ends up being.
In Buffalo, Slafkovsky did exactly what was expected of him: he showed he’s physically ready to play in the NHL and has the smarts to get out of trouble. He didn’t do a ton of play-driving, but give him room to shoot and he’ll punish you like he did seven times in Beijing.
Slafkovsky didn’t blow anyone away by any means in Buffalo, and didn’t even play the second game against New Jersey. It was a tournament to get the young guys together and perhaps find a few unsigned gems. Slafkovsky was there to get the reps in and prepare to make the Habs out of training camp, with the extra playing time giving him a nice boost ahead of the real deal. He’ll slide into some exhibition games and allow the coaching staff a chance to see if he’s worthy of making it full-time.
At the very least, the opposition liked what they saw out of him.
“(He was) as advertised,” Rochester Americans Seth Appert said of Slafkovsky after Thursday’s game. “I saw him practice and I was like, “My gosh. He’s massive, right? He has a presence about him. He’s got the square jaw. He looks like a man.”
Slafkovsky told reporters prior to the battle against the Sabers that he’ll take every game moving forward as an opportunity to prove he belongs in the NHL – the bare minimum you’d expect from a prospect of Slafkovsky’s skill level. And while it was a good start in Buffalo, there’s still a lot of room to go until Montreal’s home opener on Oct. 12 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Whether or not Slafkovsky makes the NHL right away – and a stint with Laval won’t hurt, either – is still a mystery, and whether or not he improves his chances based on his rookie camp is up to the beholder. Everything else is now all up to Slafkovsky himself.