Juraj Slafkovsky opens Canadiens’ development field impressively, despite what he thinks

At one point during the first day of ice training at Canadians development camp, there was a three-on-three drill, and Juraj Slavkovsky was on the prowl.

He’s a tough guy to miss: the No. 1 pick in the NHL Thursday night’s draft weighed in for camp at 6-foot-3, 227 pounds, but this time around, Slafkovsky somehow slipped away from the defending team’s attention.

He settled into the slot, took a pass that was a little off his feet, dropped to his knees and fired a shot into the net.

Apart from the hundreds of fans watching from the other side of the glass, there was an army of coaches watching the process from the blue line. Among them was Vincent Lecavalier, someone who has experienced the scrutiny Slafkovsky will face as the No. 1 pick in the draft, though he did so in a much less intense environment; there were no crowds like this watching Lecavalier’s first steps on the ice in a tampa bay lightning uniform in 1998.

After Slafkovsky scored, the groups were called to switch positions, and as he skated toward the blue line, Lecavalier said something to his new protégé. We don’t know what Slafkovsky said in response, but whatever it was, he made Lecavalier laugh, shaking his head.

Lecavalier was clearly impressed, and he wasn’t the only one who appreciated Slafkovsky’s unique combination of size and skill that compelled Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes to select him Thursday night in a packed Bell Center of people who wanted them to draft someone else. .

His reach is extraordinary and he can handle the puck with his arms fully extended just as easily as close to his feet. Little dekes between the legs, a shot between the legs, rampaging his way to the front of the net – whatever Slafkovsky may have displayed during development camp drills where he’s not expected to really expose anyone physically, showed it.

“Just the way he owns the record. Once he gets it, he’s got good hands, strong hands and a strong body as well,” said Canadiens prospect Sean Farrell, who faced Slafkovsky with Team USA at the Olympic Games. “We also had a lot of professional players there and he protected the puck for them pretty easily.”

Anyone who saw Slavkovsky on Monday should have been impressed. Except the one he was impressing wasn’t that impressed with himself.

“I wanted to have a good (practice), but in my opinion, it didn’t go that well, but I’m sure it will get better tomorrow or Wednesday,” Slafkovsky said. “It was a bit of a tough start, still a bit tired from what happened and I have a whole new team so it was tough. But that is not an excuse.

“I have to be much better, it doesn’t matter.”

As Slafkovsky spoke to the media at the Canadiens’ practice facility Monday, his good friend and fellow first-round pick Philip Mesar he was sitting on a bench alone, waiting for it to finish. When Mesar was told how Slafkovsky evaluated his own day, he laughed. It seemed typical of his friend, but it wasn’t that.

It was that Mesar knows what Slafkovsky likes and what he doesn’t.

“Yeah, I think so, because he doesn’t like small games,” Mesar said. “He’s a big guy, he’s strong, but he doesn’t like smaller, faster players, like in the corners. So maybe it was difficult for him. I like games like this.

“For these small games, Juraj said that he is not very good in practice. But he is good at the real games.”

Slafkovsky was the heaviest player on the ice in development camp (the only assistant who is actually heavier, defender Arber Xhekaj, is suffering from an injury) and so it was a big moment when he headed to the corner with the smallest player on the ice in development field

defending Hutson Lane, the Canadiens’ fourth overall draft pick at No. 62, was 5-foot-8 and 151 pounds. It is a challenge he must constantly face, to prove that his elite talent can overcome that physical deficiency that he has no control over. Hutson could grow to 5ft 10 or 5ft 11, if your endocrinologist is to believe, but that doesn’t matter. He believes he can play up to his size, even if no one else does, and he intends to prove it.

This was an excellent opportunity.

Earlier in development camp, Hutson was near the boards when Callum Chisholm, a 6-foot-5, 218-pound camp guest, grabbed him and rammed him into the wall. Hutson essentially disappeared when Chisholm suffocated him. But Hutson recovered and continued to play as if nothing had happened. This matchup with Slafkovsky over a 50-50 puck seemed like another one of those moments.

As Hutson and Slafkovsky headed toward that puck in the corner, there was a sense of anticipation about how Hutson would handle this situation. But before Slafkovsky could do anything, Hutson did very well.

With one hand on his cane, Hutson walked around Slafkovsky and shoved the puck across the boards before any kind of physical encounter could take place. In fact, this is what Hutson did all day. That Chisholm punch was basically the only time Hutson was touched.

Moments later, when Slafkovsky had the puck against the sidewall, he tried to clear Hutson between the legs, as he did several other players throughout the afternoon. Except he didn’t do it to Hutson, who calmly took the puck from him and gave his team another possession in the drill.

When Hutson was brought up with that later, he smiled. He remembered.

But still, he was impressed with what he saw from the great and powerful Slovakian.

“Physically he’s complete,” Hutson said. “I think he’s ready for the NHL. He can play, he’s super skilled at being a bigger guy. He’s got some good hands, he can handle the stick in tight places, he sees the ice pretty well and he’s got a chance, obviously.”

The range of Slafkovsky’s stick-handling ability stood out to Hutson, a self-admitted hockey nerd who is obsessed with the game. The fact that he can make plays with the puck so far away from his body as easily as he can with pucks at his feet was something Hutson noticed right away. He would present a challenge to any defender, but to one like Hutson, he would appear to be even more of a challenge.

He didn’t see it the same way, as expected.

“For me, my club has to be faster than his,” Hutson said. “If they’re trying to run me through me, just take it out before they realize what they were doing.”

Slafkovsky and Hutson may seem like they have nothing in common. One is a giant power forward, the other a historically small defenseman. But they both have something to prove in this camp, and despite what Slafkovsky may think, they both made a good start by doing so on day one.

(Photo of Juraj Slafkovsky during the first day of the Canadiens development camp: Peter McCabe / The Canadian Press via AP)

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