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Trying to contextualize Juraj Slafkovsky’s record in Liiga

Juraj Slafkovsky is unquestionably one of the most talented players available in the 2022 NHL Draft class. The combination of his size, skill, shooting, and versatility makes him unique, and his ceiling is incredibly high for scouts and spotters alike.

Yet whenever Slafkovsky is brought up in the context of the first general selection, there is a huge elephant in the room: 10 points in 31 games. This is what Slafkovsky implemented in his draft year with TPS in Liiga.

It’s a number that not only pales in comparison to the most recent top wingers (or centers who played as wingers in their draft-eligible year) in the Liiga such as Patrik Laine and Kaapo Kakko, but it’s one that fails to take on players with far less fanfare like Mikko Rantanen and yes, Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He is even the one who is overshadowed by players in his own draft class like Joakim Kemell.

Moreover, Slafkovsky’s performance in Liiga is rarely brought up when discussing the player in the context of first overall selection and how he compares to Shane Wright and Logan Cooley. As an illustration, Sportsnet’s flagship montage of Slafkovsky after his selection featured only the blue and white of the Slovak national team, with the black and white of the TPS nowhere to be seen.

So what should we think of Slafkovsky’s record in Liiga? Is this something to minimize given the performance of the Slovak under his national colors? Is this the forest that Kent Hughes and company choose not to see? Or is there a third option, where Slafkovsky’s Liiga matches fit into his international play to create a cohesive trajectory for the developing youngster?

Slafkovsky’s season, domestic and international, can be roughly divided into two halves. He started the 2021-22 campaign at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup with the Slovak U18 national team, before joining the U20 academy team of TPS in the SM-sarja U20, the top-flight junior hockey league of Finland. Nine points in five games at the Hlinka followed by 18 points in 11 games in the SM-sarja U20 demonstrated how Slafkovsky had moved past the age-restricted competitions, and so he joined the main club for the third game of their regular season.

Slafkovsky’s first 20 games at the professional level were, to put it mildly, disappointing. Four points (one goal) in 21 games in a men’s professional league is a record that might suit a borderline top-10 prospect, but not one that could challenge for the top spot. Despite this, Slafkovsky was selected in the Slovak national team for the 2022 Winter Olympics. He was not immediately thrust into a key role, but two goals against eventual gold medalists Finland , in Slovakia’s opening match, caught everyone’s attention – 12:57 against Finland became 13:39 against Sweden, which became 15:16 in the first knockout game. against Germany. By the time Slafkovsky’s brace against Sweden propelled Slovakia to their first-ever hockey medal, he was 17:17 on the team’s first line.

When he returned to Finland for the last 10 games of the Liiga regular season, the difference was day and night. Four points in 21 games (0.87 points per 60 minutes TOI) became six points in 10 games (2.20 P/60). The playoffs were more of the same: seven points in 18 matches as part of the TPS route to the final (1.51 P/60). Combining the post-Olympic regular season and the playoffs, Slafkovsky had 13 points in 28 games, or 1.76 P/60.

These numbers are still lower than the numbers put forward by the Kakkos and the Laines, but at least place Slafkovsky in Rantanen and Kotkaniemi territory. This dramatically changes the narrative: instead of a player who is perceived to struggle in league play but excels in brief flashes, Slafkovsky becomes a very good league player who is accentuated by international flashes of genius.

Does this justify Slafkovsky’s first general selection? Not necessarily. Even with that contextualization, Shane Wright’s record to date is even more impressive. This contextualization shows that Slafkovsky has shown evidence of an impressive upward trajectory in this season alone, which in turn directly hits on one of Wright’s perceived weaknesses – stagnation at the OHL level.

Hughes and his team are banking on the fact that Slafkovsky’s trajectory gives him a higher ceiling than Wright, and that the Montreal Canadiens have a development plan to allow the young Slovak to reach that ceiling. Slafkovsky’s uniqueness is also likely to attract Hughes. While the general manager may see Kirby Dach, Nick Suzuki and Owen Beck as adequate consolation for Wright’s absence, Slafkovsky offers a potential merger of Cole Caufield and Josh Anderson who has been missing from the Canadiens roster since the departure of Max Pacioretty (and probably even before this).

If you are pessimistic, Slafkovsky’s selection represents the “risk”. If you’re optimistic, Slafkovsky’s selection represents the “potential”. These two perspectives are sides of the same coin, and combined they show two things: first, that Hughes is willing to sacrifice known value in order to potentially capitalize on unknown value, and; second, Hughes possesses a certain level of confidence in what he has at his disposal, to compensate for the lost known value and to bring out the full extent of the unknown value.

As with most draft-related conversations, only time will decide whether Hughes is vindicated or despised, not just for his selection, but for his faith in his own developmental abilities.