Pros, cons of sending Juraj Slafkovsky to World Juniors

Pros, cons of sending Juraj Slafkovsky to World Juniors

Ah, the pressure of being a No. 1 pick.

Ever since the Montreal Canadiens made a surprise decision to skip past Shane Wright to select Juraj Slafkovsky – a moment that shocked scouts and fans alike – there’s been significant attention on the Slovakian forward, and rightfully so. When Slafkovsky started off slow through the Buffalo Prospect Showcase and the preseason, fans started to get worried.

Skip to the present, and he has eight points in 21 games to kick off his NHL career. He won’t win the Calder Trophy, but he’s been playing a bit better since getting promoted to a line with Sean Monahan and Josh Anderson. Unsurprisingly, giving more ice time and better linemates to a goal-scorer can have its benefits – kind of like that Cole Caufield kid last year, huh?

Among the 97 rookies to see playing time this season, Slafkovsky is 22nd in 5-on-5 scoring with six points and in the same spot with 1.66 points per 60. So, indeed, nothing special offensively from him this year, but so much of that can be attributed to his lack of playing time early on. If we’re looking at the four games since Dec. 1, he’s up to 17th at 2.42. Slafkovsky has points in three of his past four games, and while he failed to record a shot in his last three, you can visually see him being more involved than he was early in the season.

He’s been fine, but there’s still a long way to go. Slafkovsky’s improved play comes at an interesting time as GM Kent Hughes has to decide what to do with his top young forward. Slovakia has already revealed its initial World Junior Championship camp roster full of European-based players, while GM Miroslav Satan confirmed that fellow Habs prospect Filip Mesar and New Jersey Devils prospect Simon Nemec will head to Eastern Canada for the holidays.

All that’s missing is Slafkovsky.

According to a report from The Athletic‘s Arpon Basu, Montreal’s executive VP Jeff Gorton said he doesn’t think Slafkovsky would be released if he “continues going the way he’s going.” The Habs still have eight games before the start of the tournament, so they have a bit of time to work with here, and so much can still change.

Will the Canadiens release him for the Christmas classic, or will things remain status quo? Regardless, here’s a look at the pros and cons to sending him this year:

Pros

I’ll redirect you to my thoughts on why it was beneficial for Shane Wright, Dylan Guenther and Brandt Clarke to represent Canada. Playing time is so significant, and while Slafkovsky has finally seen an uptick in recent games, he’s still sitting at an average ice time of 11:29. I fully agree playing with NHL talent is much more beneficial than playing with junior kids, but there needs to be a clear game plan of what the Habs want to do with Slafkovsky over the next few weeks. Is he a mistake or two away from falling down the lineup again, or will he stick where he is?

If it’s the former, give him the ice time at the WJC. The Slovaks had a terrible outing over the summer and could use all the support they can get. The 2022 Slovakian team was supposed to show tremendous promise with Slafkovsky, Nemec and Mesar leading he way, among others. All three missed the event in August, but getting them back in the fold would be huge in keeping Slovakia in the top division and perhaps even stealing a big win or two along the way like they did en route to a bronze medal at the Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

Slafkovsky was a central figure of the national team last year, leading the Olympics with seven goals en route to the MVP title. Going to the World Juniors would almost feel like a step back given his NHL experience already, but like Wright, Clarke or Guenther, this is about getting solid ice time, playing more than 20 minutes a night and being a pivotal contributor on a team again instead of being just another body in the lineup. Ice time is critical, and while he’s starting to see more of it in the NHL, he’s not going to break the 20-minute mark like he would with Slovakia.

Representing your country is a tremendous honor, and Slafkovsky’s presence would be a massive boost for the Slovaks. He’d get ample playing time and freedom to control plays and get creative, something he doesn’t have the same freedom to do in the NHL. Strong play can be a big confidence booster. He’s starting to get that in Montreal finally, but it’s not like the Habs are making the playoffs this year. Giving him this experience would be a respectful gesture, if he was willing to go, of course.

Sending him would allow him to be a leader. If they find that to be valuable enough to outweigh the negatives, that could be a deciding factor here.

Cons

Slovakia’s success isn’t Montreal’s concern, and I get it. The Habs want what’s best for Slafkovsky. You have to imagine they’ve had his best interests in mind from the get-go, even if some of the lineup decisions didn’t make sense. He still looks like a player trying to get comfortable, especially physically, and that’s better served with NHL-level coaching.

As Slafkovsky’s shifts have increased, so have his scoring chances, even if the sample size isn’t big. He’s building a level of confidence as a shooter that you don’t want to disturb if you don’t have to. Having more capable linemates at his disposal means he doesn’t have to do as much every shift and can focus more on playing to his strengths, and that’s shooting and setting guys up in high-danger opportunities.

There’s also the injury factor, and it’s something the Chicago Blackhawks had to deal with when Kirby Dach nearly missed the entire 2020-21 season with an injury suffered in a pre-tournament game. I don’t buy in to this being a legitimate concern given you can get injured practically anywhere, and I think the postivites far surpass the negatives. I also know teams like to protect their assets as best they can, and sending them off to have another team take care of them isn’t always a favorable decision.

The biggest takeaway is consistency, and ripping someone out of a new environment just as he’s getting comfortable can be a risky decision. It’s not like he was only adjusting to a new league – it’s an all new lifestyle, and he went to one of the biggest hockey markets in the world with a dual language system. That’s a ton to adjust to if you’re not used to it. It might not make sense to pull him out once he’s gaining momentum.

What should Montreal do?

Despite a slow start on Slafkovsky’s end, I don’t think the Canadiens should follow suit with Seattle, Arizona or Los Angeles and should lean toward keeping him. The odds of Slovakia seriously contending for a medal are slim, so it’s not like he’d be going for a near-guaranteed piece of hardware like the Canadian stars. I do like the idea of him being a leader on a team that needs one, and I’ll always be a fan of players representing their countries – especially when their presence is so important.

At the same time, Slafkovsky’s situation isn’t like the others. He isn’t becoming a daily fixture in the press box. He’s actually playing, and he’s continuing to look better week after week. Could he benefit from the WJC? Absolutely, but I’m not sure it’s worth sending him away for three weeks to play just a handful of games and only a few that might actually have meaning for the youngster.

There are benefits to both decisions, but I’d say hold on to him and let him develop at his own pace. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to play for Slovakia internationally, and I’d argue the World Championship in May is much more valuable for him anyways.

Of course, I’d still be thrilled to see him in Moncton anyway.

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