In-Depth Breakdown of Juraj Slafkovsky’s game
Slafkovsky is a 6’4 Slovak winger with one of the richest toolboxes among the prospects we have seen in recent seasons.
It’s hard to pinpoint what he does best on the ice because there are so many of his attributes that sit at a high level and he doesn’t rely on one of those more than another.
The first thing I would talk about Slafkovsky is his great hands and the confidence he shows on certain plays. He has excellent puck control and is able to maneuver in heavy traffic, even against men. Possessing a good repertoire of dekes, I saw Slafkovsky on several occasions dangle an opposing forward at the blue line when he had taken the position of a defender who had advanced into the offensive zone. He does not lack audacity and creativity. He can just as well outsmart a player when he has a head of steam as he can when he receives the puck while being static in a corner of the ice where he lets the opposing player come on him and then beats him with a series of quick shoulder movements, colloquially known in English as a ‘Shimmy-Shake’. When he played in the under-20 league in Finland, it was pretty amazing the dangles he pulled out on occasion. It’s a rare quality to be able to deke players when at full speed, it’s very impressive to see that in a player of his size. Later in the season, around December, Slafkovsky started playing with a longer stick (more on that later), which normally affects a player’s puck handling, but Slafkovsky only got something positive out of it. He retained all his dexterity and it also allowed him to extend his reach with the puck.
The thing that impresses me the most about him is the variety of plays he is able to think and perform as well as his deceptiveness. When I talk about a wide array of plays, I’m not necessarily referring to his different weapons such as his shot and his size. I’m still talking about the range of creative ideas he shows with the puck. Slafkovsky is an enigma to his opponents because he can beat them in so many ways and also because he hides his intentions so well. An example of this is when he comes down to one of the face-off circles and begins to wind up as if he was about to take a wrist shot while looking straight at the goaltender and waits at the last second for a defender compromising to block the shot to eventually pass to a teammate in the slot. I’ve seen him make those kinds of plays coming from both sides. Slafkovsky is very quick to analyze what is happening on the ice and he can react based on what he sees if he believes he can make a better play. It happened several times that Slafkovsky was about to shoot and when he noticed that the defenseman was opting for an overly aggressive approach towards him, he pulled a deke out of his hat out of the blue and took the opportunity to advance to an even more dangerous place.
On several occasions I have seen him deliberately mislead his opponents as he saw fit. One such example is on one of the most impressive plays I’ve seen this season, by any player: playing the point on the power play, Slafkovsky grabbed the puck behind his net after a dump-in from the opposition, he carried the puck down the left flank to the neutral zone where he turned his hips back to the play as if about to pass the puck to the player behind him (known as the ‘slingshot’ strategy), seeing this, the players on the other team turned their attention to the following player and at the very second they adjusted their positioning and attention to the player who was following, Slafkovsky turned to face the play, completely dangled the defenseman at the blue line that was not waiting for him and ensured the zone entry in possession of the puck for his team.
Holding this position on special teams, he was often the player who led the charge on the counter-attacks and the variety of plays he displayed was truly impressive. He also has the talent to rush the puck from one end to the other.
I would then move on to his passing skills and his vision of the game. The reason why I decide to talk about this aspect after talking about his hands and his creativity is that these qualities greatly amplify Slafkovsky’s effectiveness as a playmaker. His remarkable dexterity with the puck gives him the status of one of the best prospects I’ve seen to make plays on their backhand. Casually, few players are able to perform high-level plays on this side. The best prospect of recent years in this area was Matthew Boldy. Most impressively, in most situations, performing a backhand pass was not his first option. More often than not it was to hand over to a player who was rushing to the net. Surprising distance passes and even backhand-saucer-passes that landed directly on his teammate’s stick. Helped by his reach and dexterity, it has also happened that in a 2-on-1 situation the defenseman would lay down full length to block the passing lane and that Slafkovsky would extend his reach and still manage to pass from his backhand to his wingman.
On the power play, I saw him fake slap shots from the blue line to finally go with a very precise pass through the entire defensive box to a teammate at the goalmouth.
His passing skills are all the more highlighted by the fact that opposing defenders have no choice but to give him space on the ice because they have to be wary of his unpredictability, which opens up a lot of ice for his teammates.
In several aspects of the game, he demonstrated nuance and refinement and his passing was no exception. During breakouts, I have seen him use the board to manage to pass to a teammate while there were several players from the opposing team cutting off all options. This also happened on several occasions where Slafkovsky did one-touch passes. It shows an excellent understanding of the positioning of his teammates on the ice and that he has already planned his actions in advance in his head. This is part of what is called the ‘pace‘ a player play. It’s not just the pace at which he skates but also the speed at which he can process the information in front of him, think and execute his plays.
When you pay attention to his shooting, there are some positive aspects and other things that leave something to be desired. His one-timer shot from the point or top of the circles is just plain violent. His wrist shot on the power play when granted space is also very threatening; release without momentum and with a lot of velocity. However, his shooting arsenal is not as vast as that of his dekes or his passes.
Indeed, I have not yet seen him demonstrate that he can take shots while he is accelerating. His best shots mostly come when he is stopped or at very low speed. It may be due to a lack of coordination. At this point I don’t expect him to become an expert in this facet like Shane Wright is, but I would like to see him develop his ability to be able to take good shots when he comes out of the circle when cycling in the offensive zone like Dylan Holloway who was also not known for having such a good shot. This is also how Slafkovsky scored his first goal in Liiga and at the Olympics.
As is often the case, assessing a prospect’s skating is not always easy for several reasons; firstly, evaluating players on video has many limitations compared to doing it in person, the different camera angles from game to game can give different impressions. Second, the season is very long. Especially for young players of this age, there may be times when fatigue catches up with them and it shows in their skating. On other occasions, the player may also have to deal with injuries that bother him.
Slafkovsky’s skating looked different at different points in the season. At times we would have preferred to see him add extra speed, at others it looked like he was an above-average skater, playing against men. At times he seemed able to cover a lot of space in a short time with his skating and sometimes he seemed to lack a bit of explosion in small spaces. However, his agility is very good at these said spaces, especially for a player of his size.
What we see first in his case is his unorthodox posture. It’s rare to see a player of his size have flawless technique. In Slafkovsky’s case, certain nuances seem to be exacerbated by the way his body is made. I would be curious to see the anthropometric data of the player because when looking at him, he seems to have a very long torso, which changes his center of gravity and the distribution of his body mass. Generally, in such cases, it is good for the player to play with a shorter stick so as not to have the trunk too vertical on the ice and to take advantage of the gravitational force during accelerations by inclining the torso. Slafkovsky already plays with a short stick, but his posture still seems a bit odd. Leaning his body more would help him maximize the output of his glute muscles when pushing. He would also benefit from further increasing his degree of flexion at the knees.
Something that seemed to help him is that he appears to be in very good physical condition and is able to finish long shifts while maintaining a high level of intensity.
All in all, his mechanics as well as his posture have made progress during the season and do not represent question marks for me. I can also hypothesize that he still has a lot of progress to make physically (in terms of physical strength and power), which will help take his skating to the next level.
At 6’4, it’s obvious his size was going to be mentioned a number of times but how does he use it? Slafkovsky is not a player who will necessarily seek to punish the opponent but facing him on a regular basis is a challenge for defenders. He is capable on occasion of distributing very good hits. It will not be his identity but it happens to him here and there to have this disturbing side where he will give shoulder-check to his opponents when returning to the bench of his team.
Other than the rough aspect, Slafkovsky uses his body very well to protect the puck with his free arm. He is also very effective when cutting at the net, lowering his shoulder and gaining leverage over the defender.
As I mentioned earlier when I was talking about his skating, Slafkovsky is agile and you can see that when he is in pursuit of the puck where he will gain position on the defender with finesse. In the event that it does not work, he has the size and the strength to play the card of the physical game.
His physique is not the only thing that is already mature, his defensive game is remarkable for a player of his age and talent. He is very solid in the neutral zone, with or without the puck. And like when he’s in control of the puck, Slafkovsky quickly analyzes the game when he doesn’t have it. He will be the first to recognize when one of his defensemen leaves his position to cover him and he will backcheck in advance when one of his defensemen attempts a ‘pinch‘ in the event that it does not work and that there is a turnover. In his zone I saw him several times make excellent interventions to prevent a player from shooting from the slot. However, what is most impressive in his defensive game is his ability to steal the puck from an opponent with his stick during backcheck. This is something that came up extremely often in my notes.
Having split his season between the professional circuit in Liiga as well as in the under-20 league in Finland, Slafkovsky has seen his use as well as his role change on the power play. In Liiga he was mainly used in front of the net. Which can make sense due to his size and his ability to screen the sight of the goalkeeper as well as by the quality of his hands to jump on rebound. He was also seen at the goalmouth where he could feed the player into the slot.
However, I much prefer to see him employed at the point as is the case in the under-20s league in Finland and at the Hlinka. He can use his hard one-timer shot and it also allows him to be able to control the game, which I believe he can do at the next level.
Offensively, he was slow to put points on the board but I didn’t penalize him like I did with other players because he had shown that he could be a threat and useful at different points; creative offensively, big and fast, threatening shot on the power play, very good playmaker, useful in the corners as well as in front of the net, responsible defensively.
However, it was a few games that I started to have some doubts about him. In some games, we hardly saw him with the puck and he always seemed to be behind the game. Even with the puck, I found his execution to be a little slow. Looking at my notes from the Hlinka Tournament, I realized that this is something I had noticed myself in the final against the Russians, when the ‘pace’ was faster and he was less noticeable.
I certainly wasn’t the only one who noticed a slump in his game as soon after he was demoted to the U20 league. I watched 2 or 3 of those games and he was just dominant. It reassured me a lot but at the same time I wanted to see more of this player in the professionals. What will go unmentioned and which is super important, in my opinion, is the attitude Slafkovsky shown during this dismissal. He took his pain patiently, accepted his fate and redoubled his hard work. It was a scenario that Lucas Raymond had experienced in his draft year and his work ethic had been very questionable in Sweden’s under-20 league when he was demoted.
This did Slafkovsky the greatest good. He regained confidence and returned to Liiga as a transformed player. He regained the boldness he had in his game and we saw him start to dare plays like he used to. He started carrying the puck, challenging defensemen one-on-one, cutting to center ice, diversifying his shot selection (both location and shot type).
The rest is history: Slafkovsky shone on the biggest stages as he was named Olympic MVP and did very well at the World Championship. The progression was constant and the arguments to put him first are numerous. In my eyes, he trumps Wright in terms of Compete-Level and the desire to make a difference on the ice. While I adore the player and definitely see him as one of the key pieces in the roster he will play with, I am not convinced he will be a big point producer. That being said, when we re-evaluate this draft in several years, the context in which the players will have been placed is likely to have a greater impact than that of the other drafts. Take Slafkovsky as an example, if the New Jersey Devils set their sights on him in 2nd place and they nail him to the flank of Jack Hughes, he could very well prove to be the best player of this draft.
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