March 27, 2023
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Stu Cowan: Internal competition fueled the Canadians’ preseason success

“They’re all hungry and they’re all competing with each other and it’s a fun environment at the moment,” head coach St. Louis said of the Habs youngsters.

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ST. LOUIS — Juraj Slafkovsky was super excited when he learned he would be back in the Canadians’ lineup for Saturday night’s game against the St. Louis Blues and would also be in the second power play session.

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“I was so happy,” Slafkovsky said with a big smile after the Canadians won 7-4 and scored a power-play goal. “I texted all my buddies and family. I play and do powerplay so they can watch.”

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Slafkovsky’s friends and family back home in Slovakia must have loved what they saw as the No. 1 pick in this year’s NHL draft scored his second goal of the season on his first power play shift after winning the previous three games with an upper Mayhem.

Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis said it was Slafkovsky’s best game and he liked the way the 6-foot-3, 238-pound winger used his height and “played like a big boy “.

It can be easy for people to forget that Slafkovsky is only 18 — a year younger than Ryan, the eldest son of St. Louis, who plays for the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints.

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St. Louis is not one of those people, which is why he slowly introduces Slafkovsky.

“He’s 18 years old…how much does he really know about the game?” St. Louis said. “Because I know when I was 18 I just loved the game – I didn’t know much about the game. So we tried to tap into his brain a bit, because there’s more to it than just putting on the skates and throwing the puck in the net. There’s a lot going on in the game, especially in the NHL, and he’s going through that right now. It’s fun to see that he can pick things up and apply them.”

St. Louis said earlier in the season that Slafkovsky would eventually be on the power play, but first he wanted him to watch and learn it from the bench. Slafkovsky’s injury also allowed him to watch three games with different eyes from the press box.

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“It helps if you watch,” Slafkovsky said. “But I don’t really like it when I’m watching from above. i prefer to play Of course it also helps if you can see these games from above and then try to do them in one game.”

St. Louis has allowed Slafkovsky to attend every power play meeting this season.

“You want good things to happen to an 18-year-old, your first pick ever,” said St. Louis, who was undone by the NHL draft but went on to have a career in the Hall of Fame. “But you have to be careful not to put him in situations too soon. I think that’s the process we went through with him and now he’s getting his chance after watching. Not only on the bench but also in the stands and that’s very important for him to see how the game looks from up there and to see: my goodness, it’s not as fast as it looks from up there . You realize you have more time than you think. You can learn so much from watching and then apply what you see based on what you see from the stands. I felt it was really positive for Slaf tonight.”

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Much of the focus for the Canadiens this season has been on Slafkovsky — the team’s first No. 1 overall since Doug Wickenheiser in 1980. But Slafkovsky was one of seven first-round picks in the Canadiens’ lineup against the Blues. along with Nick Suzuki (13th overall from Las Vegas in 2017), Cole Caufield (15th overall from Montreal in 2019), Kaiden Guhle (16th overall from Montreal in 2020), Kirby Dach (third overall from Chicago in 2019), Sean Monahan (6th overall from Calgary in 2013), and Joel Armia (16th overall from Buffalo in 2011). Jonathan Drouin, drafted third overall from Tampa Bay in 2013, was a healthy scratch.

St. Louis has talent to work with and he tries to get the best out of all his players, which includes internal competition.

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Canada’s management has made it clear that this season is more about development than winning and losing. After going 5-4 in the first nine games, St. Louis was asked if people might underestimate the talent he has to work with.

“I’m not worried about what people on either side think is going on with Canadians,” he said. “I’m just worried about my team. It’s a good group of guys. They’re all hungry and they’re all competing and it’s a fun environment at the moment and we have to earn that fun because fun is earned every day and I think we do. Whether we win the games or lose, I think we deserve our fun.

“We have a lot of talent – and talent will only take you so far,” added the coach. “You need good people, a good attitude, regular people, and I think we’ve got that right now.”

This includes an 18-year-old “big boy” who is improving with every game.

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