Juraj Slafkovský has had an awakening that will benefit the Canadiens for years

Slaf and Ekblad photo scaled e1712124514268

MONTREAL — About a month into Juraj Slafkovský’s rookie season with the Montreal Canadiens, he was sitting at his locker after practice, talking about his final season with TPS Turku in Finland and how he was used on the power play.

The vast majority of his power-play usage came at the net front, whereas Slafkovský prefers playing on the right flank so he can fire one-timers and make plays. But he was a big body and his coaches in Finland saw that big body before anything else when it came to deploying him on the power play.

It bothered Slafkovský, but he was 17 playing professional hockey in a foreign country, and wasn’t exactly in a position to complain about how he was being used on the power play. He has a big body, he knows it, and he was going to do what his team needed that big body to do.

“But,” he said back then, raising his hands and looking at them, “I think I can use these as well.”

It was a window into the inherent conflict that exists sometimes with bigger players who are constantly defined by their physical gifts, but who define themselves by skills associated with smaller players. Slafkovský has had the same struggle dealing with the pressure to shoot the puck more often that was coming from fans, media, his teammates, his coaches and even his mother, and his belief that he is a very good playmaker who can pass the puck and set up his teammates.

But the thing that Slafkovský didn’t realize at the time is that he doesn’t have to limit himself to being one thing. He doesn’t have to decide between being a physical player or a skilled player, a shooter or a playmaker. He can be everything at once.

That reality became very evident in the Canadiens’ 5-3 win against the playoff-bound Florida Panthers on Tuesday, the first time Slafkovský had beaten the Panthers in his NHL career.

The Panthers are a physical team, one that was undermanned in this game missing Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe, and a team that had to finish the game without Aaron Ekblad because he got into it with Slafkovský towards the end of the first period.

“I don’t know what happened with him,” Slafkovský said. “He was trying to grab me there, and I’m not letting him do that. Probably gave it to him a little bit on the ice as well.”

This was the big takeaway from Slafkovský’s game against the Panthers, that he wasn’t going to let him do that. It happened repeatedly, and Slafkovský was loving it.

After the game, he arrived at his locker and sat down, just staring into space awaiting the media. When told he looked tired, Slafkovský didn’t deny it.

“Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “I was throwing the body around today.”

This was Slafkovský being a big body, being physical, being what he didn’t want to be limited by as he arrived in the NHL when he didn’t understand how he could combine what he wanted to be and what the Canadiens and the NHL needed him to be.

“You’ve got to be physical in this league, that’s what it’s all about,” Slafkovský said. “I feel like that’s what makes the difference not in the regular season, but in the playoffs. We’re looking forward for that hockey and we try to play every game like a playoff game.”

There is Slafkovský at his essence. His priorities are always firmly focused on helping the Canadiens achieve team success.

“My favourite thing from Slaf as a No. 1 pick overall is it’s not about himself, and it’s rare, I think, that you see that at that age,” Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis said. “He’s very selfless in the sense that he really cares about the guys around him, he cares about the team, he wants to win, he wants to play these games. I think he’s enjoying the process of growing as a player in this league and he’s trying to find success and how you have to play.”

But what is most important for Slafkovský is that he had a game like he did Tuesday, where he responded to every physical challenge he faced, but he also did what he’s always seen as his best asset, which is playmaking, using those hands.

Therefore, more than Slafkovský’s physical play in this game, which is significant, it is this play that led to Cole Caufield scoring a wraparound goal that stood out.

Look at that little nod from St. Louis as he watched the replay. That is a play where Slafkovský would have been perfectly justified dumping the puck in, surrounded by two Panthers at a critical spot on the ice. Nick Suzuki was on the other side of the ice in case Slafkovský decided to hard-rim the puck around the boards. But he didn’t do that.

He used his hands.

“I’m not on the fourth line anymore, I’m first line,” he said with a perfect deadpan. “Can’t dump it in.”

Then he got serious.

“If I didn’t see him driving the middle, I would probably just chip it in. But I saw him flying with speed, and that’s a pretty nice goal,” he said. “I was trying to keep the puck, see the options, and if I had nothing, I would just dump it.”

That is the beauty of what is happening with Slafkovský. He is combining his desire to be known for his hands with not only the reality that he needs to use his physicality in the NHL. But he also relishes that he needs to use that physicality, that being a big body doesn’t preclude him from using his hands, and vice versa.

He’s hit a sweet spot.

“My favourite thing he’s done this year is he’s figured out when to use what,” St. Louis said. “Sometimes it’s physicality, sometimes it’s poise. He has a lot of poise with the puck now. He doesn’t panic, I think the game has slowed down for him. But I think he understands with his size, that physicality is always going to be a big part of how he conducts himself on the ice, without running around looking for stuff that’s not there.

“But it’s such a big asset that he has, and he’s learned how to use it this year. Those games, playoff games, players like that, they’re annoying to play against in the playoffs.”

At one point after the game Tuesday, Slafkovský was asked about last season, which is something he has tried his best to move past. The fact he hasn’t lost patience yet in answering questions about how ineffective he was as a rookie is a credit to him and further proof he was tailor-made to play in this market.

“Last year I was still young,” he said, “and I didn’t go as deep into my game.”

For the record, Slafkovský is still young. He turned 20 on Saturday. But he shouldn’t be blamed for thinking the version of himself as a rookie is considerably younger than the version we have before us now. He’s learned so much, and Tuesday’s game was a perfect example of that.

Slafkovský’s skill and hands and hockey sense don’t have to take a back seat to his size, and his size doesn’t have to take a back seat to his skill and hands and hockey sense. He can marry all those things together to make him a better NHL player, and that realization makes Slafkovský’s future that much brighter.

(Photo of Juraj Slafkovský and Aaron Ekblad: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

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