Juraj Slafkovsky Canadiens vs Leafs

MONTREAL — With just over one week remaining in Montreal Canadiens training camp, Juraj Slafkovsky finally asserted himself.

Against a Toronto Maple Leafs team that iced its top two lines, three of its top-six defencemen and its starting goaltender, the 6-foot-4, 238-pound left winger looked the part of the player who was taken first overall by the Canadiens at the NHL Draft this past July. He was noticeable on nearly every one of his 19 shifts, came oh-so-close to scoring his first goal on multiple occasions, made a strong play to the net to notch his first assist, led his side with eight shot attempts, threw a hit and registered a takeaway.

Slafkovsky earned one point on the scoresheet, and several more with Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis.

“I found he had a lot of jump, a lot more confidence with the puck and, with where he was on the ice, you could tell he was in the game,” St. Louis said after the Canadiens lost 5-1 to the Maple Leafs to fall to 0-5 in the preseason.

“Sometimes it takes a couple of games to understand the speed of the game and adjust to our concepts,” he added.

Whether or not a couple more will reveal if Slafkovsky is ready to start the season in Montreal is the question.

There’s merit to the idea of keeping him in Montreal beyond the preseason —regardless of his production (or lack thereof) — to see what he can do when it actually matters. Slafkovsky vaulted into pole position at the draft by dramatically upping his game to lead Team Slovakia in scoring at both the Olympics and world championship, which contrasted with his somewhat underwhelming offensive results with TPS Turku in the uber-defensive Finnish Liiga last season. It could be worth a look to see if he’d step up similarly to start his NHL career.

St. Louis intimated that the final preseason games against more NHL-laden lineups might provide the proper environment to obtain the type of information necessary to make the right call on Slafkovsky before the regular season gets underway, though he didn’t go as far as to guarantee they would.

But those last couple tests of meaningless hockey might be all the coach has to go on.

The thing is, even if Slafkovsky builds on Monday’s performance and blows it out of the water over his next two — assuming he plays in at least two of the three remaining exhibition games on Montreal’s schedule — the Canadiens would still have to get creative with their roster to extend his sample. With 15 healthy forwards at camp and virtually no realistic chance of trading any of them away in deals that would be considered good asset management, icing a 23-man roster that includes Slafkovsky becomes a trickier proposition.

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They could waive Michael Pezzetta and then make a difficult choice between waiving Mike Hoffman or Joel Armia, but that’s probably more risk than they’d like to assume in order to just get a few more looks at Slafkovsky before making a decision.

The Canadiens could also just waive Pezzetta, keep 14 forwards and opt to start the season with only six defencemen and no extras just to work Slafkovsky into the first few games. With several young blueliners eligible to join the AHL’s Laval Rocket without having to clear waivers, and with a home-heavy schedule to start before embarking on a four-game road trip towards the end of October, it wouldn’t be a bad way to manage the numbers game.

Another way would be to just send Slafkovsky down and give him as much time as he needs to develop his game — to the point that he eliminates any doubt he belongs in the NHL by the time he’s recalled.

The Canadiens wouldn’t be considering going this route had he shown in the lead up to Monday’s game what he ended up showing in Monday’s game.

The performance left Slafkovsky feeling like he’s gaining confidence and finding his rhythm in a game that moves faster than any he’s played before — and on an ice surface that’s much smaller than the one he’s accustomed to.

The process is improving for Slafkovsky off the ice, too.

“I just always try to keep repeating to myself that I know how to play hockey,” he said. “This is what got me here, and I feel like the last games I was trying to play a different way from how I play. Today, it was just my normal day, and I didn’t really think about what I should do or shouldn’t do and stuff. I just focused and had fun.”

It showed in Slafkovsky’s play — in the way he used his body to protect the puck, in the way he put himself into position to uncork a one-timer Leafs goaltender Matt Murray gloved to steal away a goal, and also in the way he took the puck to the net to create the opportunity for Jonathan Drouin to score Montreal’s only goal.

If Slafkovsky can keep that up, he gives the Canadiens more incentive to keep him around Montreal longer.

Surely, they’d like to see it happen.

Even if Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes has said over and over again that he’ll make the unpopular decision to send Slafkovsky to Laval if that’s what he feels is best for him, it’s hard to imagine he would be totally comfortable with the optics of doing so before testing his ability in meaningful games — especially when you take into account that he and his staff elected to take Slafkovsky over Shane Wright, who was the projected first-overall pick for years leading up to the 2022 Draft.

Optics don’t rule this decision, but to suggest they play no part in it would be a stretch.

Regardless, there wouldn’t be a decision to make at all had Slafkovsky not emerged for all the right reasons against the Leafs.

He impressed, and he had to considering how little time remains in this training camp.

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