Welcome to my ramblings, where I’ll be writing down my thoughts on NHL and draft-eligible prospects once a week. I’ll be using the ramblings to keep you posted on the week’s events, or let you in on some questions I ask myself often regarding prospects, amateur scouting and player development.
This week, we’ll be taking a look at a couple of wingers who have benefitted from recent opportunities in order to take their game to the next level. First we’ll check out Slovak winger Juraj Slafkovsky’s performance at the Olympics, which saw him earn the honors of Olympic MVP, despite his 17 years of age. Then we’ll take a look at how and why Martin St-Louis’ arrival behind the Habs’ bench has lit a fire under Cole Caufield and brought him out of his concerning slump.
As the end of the season approaches, both of these prospects will have a chance to build off of their hot streak and set themselves up for long-standing success. We’ll talk about it more in-depth, but confidence can make a gigantic difference in a player’s game, especially an offensive-minded one.
Juraj Slafkovsky: Historic Olympics Performance
Slafkovsky’s performance in Beijing in the last month was riddled with record-breaking moments.
At 17 years of age, the Slovak winger became the youngest hockey player to represent his country in the Olympics since Eddie Olczyk donned the Red, White and Blue in Sarajevo for the 1984 Winter Games.
He also became the youngest-ever Olympic MVP in the tournament’s history, which he earned despite his team finishing third on the podium.
His seven goals in seven games were also the most by any under-20 player in recent history (I had to check this manually, went back as far as 1968 and couldn’t find a single player under 20 years of age to have scored as much as Slafkovsky did), and the most goals a single player has scored in the Olympics since 26-year-old Pavel Bure’s nine tallies in 1998.
There’s a certain amount of reserve that’s necessary when evaluating a prospect over such a small sample, but it helps tremendously to know that he also led all Olympians in shots at the tournament. It’s not like he was throwing everything at the net, either: he was playing give-and-go with his teammates when the circumstances asked for it, and often got his shots off very shortly after receiving the puck, which is a telltale sign of a prospect being able to identify pockets of space and exploit them.
He was regularly involved physically, using his frame and reach along the boards and in tight spaces to earn himself the extra space necessary to get quick shots off with velocity. His hockey sense was on full display as well, as the prospect seemed inherently conscious of what was going on around him at all times. Pre-scanning and communication helped a lot in that sense, with the latter being aided by playing with an entire team that speaks his native language fluently.
That likely isn’t the only differentiating factor which allowed Slafkovsky to flourish at the Olympics in ways that he hasn’t managed to replicate for JYP in the Finnish Liiga. His one goal and four assists in 21 games at that level are partly a result of him playing on larger ice, against men who have a much broader experience playing on these types of surfaces. Given the winger’s propensity for dominating small-area situations, having space and time to work with doesn’t exactly benefit him, the way it would a Matthew Barzal or Johnny Gaudreau. On the contrary; he’s less likely to see those situations in which he excels.
His stickhandling was also a key factor in how he scored his seven goals — the way Slafkovsky changes the angle on his shot within the same motion as his wrister adds a layer of unpredictability to his release, as goaltenders can’t read its direction as efficiently and pinpoint its trajectory. Although higher-level goaltenders could likely have saved one or two of his successful shots on goal, he has years to perfect his craft, and shows a level of intensity which mainly comes from a mental perseverance that, more often than not, translates to a steeper learning curve in younger players.
If he keeps this up, Slafkovsky will give scouts and NHL teams no other choice than to consider him a lock for the top-three.
Cole Caufield — Revolutionized by Martin St-Louis
No, seriously, you should pick him up if you haven’t. I’ve been hammering this nail for a while: all Cole needed to get back to scoring goals was to see more regular ice-time, with teammates who can get him the puck in dangerous areas. He has that going for him now alongside Nick Suzuki and Josh Anderson.
These things build confidence. To go right back out there, after a missed shot or a defensive blunder, reduces the expectation and the weight on his shoulders of needing to get things done in order to earn his coach’s trust. The Habs’ new head coach, Martin St-Louis, has done a brilliant job of handing the reigns to his youngest pieces and letting them just go out there and have fun.
In a historically bad season, in which nothing seems to be going right for the Habs, Caufield’s recent six-game stretch, in which he added five goals and three assists, helped the team win three games in a row for the first time this year. In fact, they hadn’t even won two in a row yet. But especially with their recent 5-2 win over the Leafs, the team now looks like it’s headed toward much better days.
Not to rag on Dominique Ducharme, but… man. Seeing Caufield’s eclosion and his firing line up so perfectly has me wondering how much of the issues in the diminutive winger’s game so far this season were actual issues, rather than a result of inexperienced, inflexible coaching. Barely seeing 30 seconds per power-play shift and being played on his strong side rather than his off wing, being tossed around from line to line while still being the least-utilized player on the team most nights… For a guy who’s coached junior players his whole career, Ducharme’s inability to get the kids going was truly perplexing, especially since he was brought in for that exact reason.
Just pick him up. This kid has never not scored goals. It’s just what he does.
Thanks for reading — follow me on Twitter @HadiK_Scouting for all of your prospect-related needs!