Three Kids and Three Cautions

September 30, 2022

Juraj Slafkovsky at the NHL Draft in Montreal.

Training camp is in full swing, and the Montreal Canadiens have already played three preseason games. The Habs invited a ton of players to camp and have begun to make cuts. With such a high volume of guys competing for ice time, it’s been tough to get a realistic sense of any individual player. A more precise assessment won’t be possible until the numbers drop enough to improve the quality of linemates while also allowing for two complete rosters to manage the preseason. Those cuts should be forthcoming shortly.

In the meanwhile, assessments are already forming about some prospects that are important to the Habs future. Those assessments should come with some cautions.

Justin Barron’s worth to the Habs should not be measured against Artturi Lehkonen’s success with the Avalanche.     

Justin Barron was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche with the 25th overall pick in the 2020 draft. The native of Halifax, Nova Scotia will turn 21 in November. To date, he has played exactly 57 professional hockey games – 50 of those were played in the AHL, two with the Avalanche, and five in Montreal following the trade.

So far in camp, Barron has not blown anyone away. He’s had some moments where he has shone, showing off his smooth skating and his confidence in the offensive zone, and other moments where he has looked a little lost. In other words, he looks exactly like you’d expect a 20-year-old with 7 NHL games under his belt to look.

I’m not worried about Justin Barron. When Sidney Crosby expresses his surprise that a team was willing to let go of a player he knows well, I’m prepared to let my eye test take a back seat for a while. Some have already formed opinions about Barron, and I wonder if Barron may become somewhat of a target because he was the return in the Artturi Lehkonen trade.

This is not Drouin-Sergachev. This is not a Hail Mary where a top prospect is sacrificed to fill a hole. Moving Lehkonen was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, the player’s prime and the team’s window were on completely different tracks. Lehkonen has thrived in Colorado because they’re a team ready for what he brings.

It’s too soon to fully assess the player that Barron will become, but it’s not too early to assess the trade. When you’re able to land a first-round pick that projects well and fills an organizational need for a player who will have left his prime when you’re ready to contend again, it’s a solid deal. Whatever becomes of Barron, making that deal was the right call at that time, and it’s not fair to assess Barron against our feelings about losing Lehky.

Where Arber Xhekaj is concerned, we should be careful not to confuse “so much better than anticipated” with “ready”.  

Arber Xhekaj is an undrafted player who was signed to a three-year entry-level contract at the end of training camp last season. You know the story – just a few short strides from a career at Costco and impressing at an NHL training camp.

I watched Xhekaj play in a few playoff games last year in the OHL. Yes, he always looks as confident and at ease as he has looked for the Habs in preseason games. Xhekaj loves to make a big hit, and certainly in the OHL there were times when it felt like the opposition was intimidated by him. He’s a better skater than you would expect, and he does a pretty good job of getting his shot through traffic.

There is every reason to believe that the Habs found a gem when they discovered Arber Xhekaj.

That said, there were other things I saw from him in Hamilton. Xhekaj took a lot of ill-timed penalties that disadvantaged his team, like we saw him do this week. Sometimes they were dangerous penalties that led to suspensions and his team having to make do without him. He can still find himself out of position or making an errant pass. As much as the kid is a gem, he’s still an unrefined gem. There is still plenty for him to work on for a year in Laval.

Xhekaj was obtained for nothing, and because of that he is exceeding expectations by a country mile… and that’s not the same thing as being ready for a full-time gig in the NHL.

The failure to dominate and even a finding of “not ready” should not amount to a verdict on the decision to select Juraj Slafkovsky with the first overall pick.

I wanted Shane Wright. I wasn’t especially vocal, and I didn’t wear a t-shirt to the draft that declared my preference, but in my own mind Wright was the safer choice. Of course, I am no draft guru, and I didn’t know the Habs would trade for Kirby Dach.

It turns out the choice wasn’t as obvious as some of us thought. The Montreal Canadiens were not the only team to leave Wright on the draft board. Sure, you can say the Devils drafted for position, but if Wright was the clear best player available, wouldn’t they reconsider that approach? And yes, you can say Arizona had their hearts set on the American, but wouldn’t they recalculate if the clear best player available was still on the board?

The truth is obvious. Shane Wright was never the clear best player available. None of the others were either.

Hughes and his staff made the choice they did because they believed that over the course of a career, Juraj Slafkovsky would be the best player for the Montreal Canadiens. The verdict on that choice will not be in for years.

Slafkovsky has not dominated. On this week’s episode of the Ray and Dregs Podcast Kent Hughes was honest about his performance in camp – he said Slafkovsky looked good in rookie camp and a little underwhelming in preseason games so far. He may not be NHL-ready yet, and he may not dominate for years.

With the 2020 NHL draft approaching, and COVID-19 running amok, Alexis Lafrenière was the “undisputed and unanimous” number one pick according to the scouts polled for Bob McKenzie’s draft list. Habs fans were willing the lottery balls to drop in their favour when the COVID playoffs were born. The Rangers ultimately won the lottery and drafted Lafrenière.

Lafrenière joined a rebuilding team and a lot of wingers ahead of him on the depth chart. Sound familiar? He had 12 goals and 9 assists in 56 games in his first season, and some dubbed him a bust. In his second season, Lafrenière improved to 19 goals and 12 assists in 79 regular season games and added 2 goals and 7 assists in 20 playoff games.

Even the undisputed and unanimous first overall pick stopped a few steps short of domination. One wonders if Lafrenière would have been better served by another year of development, but he had little to prove in junior hockey. At this point, does it matter? Does anyone doubt that he will become a highly effective player for the Rangers? When careers are finished, it may be easy to look back and say there were better players on the board, but does that make the Lafrenière pick an error?

It’s understandable that fans want the pick to be perfect – winning a lottery doesn’t happen very often. But patience will serve us all well for now, because the verdict on Slafkovsky is still a few years away.

Published by Lori Bennett

Hockey is my hobby. I love a respectful hockey chat or debate, but it stops being fun if we're jerks.

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