BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP)In finishing his Canadiens’ competitive debut with a near three-minute shift, Montreal’s celebrated rookie forward Juraj Slafkovsky had more than enough energy to take one long spin around the ice before heading to the locker room.
Rather than being spent from the ice time he had just logged, the first player selected in the NHL draft in July expressed disappointment for failing to make a difference in a 4-3 loss to Buffalo in the opening game of the Sabres six-team prospects tournament on Thursday night.
”I wouldn’t say tired because when it’s like three minutes left you don’t really feel tired,” Slafkovsky said. ”You just want to score and do whatever it takes, and you don’t care about time.”
As for rating his outing, which included an assist, the 18-year-old from Slovakia said there’s room for improvement.
”I think there were a couple of turnovers from my side, and mistakes happen,” Slafkovsky said.
”I wouldn’t take it, like, `Yeah, now I did something bad.’ No. It’s just the first game and everyone has to get into it,” he added. ”I know myself, when I play more and more, it will get only better and better.”
It was an assessment that emphasized the self-confidence Slafkovsky displayed in climbing up the NHL draft rankings over the course of a calendar year. He went from being projected as a top-10 pick to No. 1 with a breakout performance at the Beijing Winter Games, where he was named the tournament MVP in helping Slovakia win its first Olympic medal, a bronze.
And it’s an answer which reflected Slafkovsky’s self-awareness in appreciating he fell short of meeting the high expectations he set for himself in the leadup to the draft by counting himself worthy of being considered the top player in his age group.
It’s a standard Slafkovsky said drove him while working out the past two months.
”It’s nice to be first or second overall, but you still have to prove it,” he said. ”So I just focus more on training and didn’t really care about anything from the outside. I didn’t really think like, `Wow, now I’m No. 1. That’s nice. I don’t need to train.”’
Slafkovsky acknowledged he tried to do too much Thursday.
There were times the 6-foot-4, 229-pound player failed in single-handedly attempting to bull through three and four defenders. His bouncing pass back to the point caused a turnover, which led to Tyson Kozak scoring the eventual game-winning goal on a shorthanded breakaway.
The few miscues were over-shadowed by bursts of brilliance from a player with the rare combination of size, speed and deft play-making ability.
He set up fellow first-round draft pick and countryman Filip Mesar’s shorthanded goal by beating two defenders in the corner, and hitting his teammate with a no-look pass. There was the time Slafkovsky was alone in driving up the right wing and curled inside Buffalo’s blue line, where he froze the defenders by bouncing a pass off the boards back to himself, before setting up a scoring chance.
And he certainly could take a check. Sabres defenseman Zach Berzolla bounced off and tumbled backward to the ice while barely budging Slafkovsky.
”As advertised,” Sabres minor league coach Seth Appert said of Slafkovsky. ”I saw him practice and I was like, `My gosh. He’s massive, right? He has a presence about him. He’s got the square jaw. He looks like a man.”
Jean-Francois Houle, who coaches the Canadiens AHL affiliate in Laval, liked what he saw for the most part.
”It’s going to be hard for opponents to control a guy like that,” Houle said. ”Sometimes, he might have tried to do a little too much, but that’s OK for a young guy to try some things now. This is the time to do it.”
The big question is whether the Canadiens deem Slafkovsky ready to open his career in the NHL next month or require time to develop in the minors.
The Canadiens aren’t tipping their hand, while Slafkovsky has his preference.
”I will do whatever Montreal says, and whatever they think will be best for me,” Slafkovsky said. ”But first, I want to do everything, for I’m ready to play (in the) NHL.”
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.
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