Stu's Slapshots: Canadiens' Juraj Slafkovsky playing big-boy hockey

The offensive numbers aren’t there yet, but the 6-foot-3, 230-pound teenager is starting to have a physical presence on the ice.

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The main reason Martin St. Louis was never selected at the NHL Draft was his size — 5-foot-8 and 176 pounds.

Not getting drafted didn’t stop St. Louis from playing 16 seasons in the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning, along with a Hart Trophy as league MVP, two Art Ross Trophies as the NHL’s leading scorer and a spot in the Hall of Fame.

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I asked St. Louis this week if he ever wonders what it would have been like for him as a player if he had Juraj Slafkovsky’s size — 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds.

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“No,” St. Louis said with a smile.

It’s somewhat ironic now that as head coach of the Canadiens it’s St. Louis who is teaching Slafkovsky — the No. 1 overall pick at the 2022 NHL Draft — how to use his size more effectively.

The 19-year-old is definitely learning.

Slafkovsky really struggled with puck battles along the boards — especially in the defensive zone — during his rookie season and again at the start of this season. But over the last couple of weeks he has shown much improvement and his confidence seems to have grown as a result. St. Louis putting Slafkovsky on the No. 1 line with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield and the top power-play unit the last two games has also been a confidence boost.

“I don’t think I need to give Slaf confidence, to be honest,” St. Louis said. “I don’t think I need to. I can help him, but I don’t think I need to give him confidence. For me, why he was on the first line, I felt like he’s earned that opportunity and same thing with the PP.”

Slafkovsky is a teenager in a man’s body. As a youngster playing in Slovakia, he was so much bigger than the other kids he didn’t really have to use his body.

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“I didn’t have to pretty much hit anyone or anything,” he said. “I just used it to keep the puck away from them and that was it because no one could do anything. Obviously, that doesn’t work here because you have a little better players that get paid millions to defend you. It makes it a little harder. But it’s just about figuring it out. It’s about puck position … where you put the puck when the pressure comes and stuff. I think the only way to learn is just to try and try in the games.”

Is he starting to learn his own strength now?

“Yeah, for sure,” the very likeable Slafkovsky answered. “I would say also Marty and (Adam Nicholas, the Canadiens’ director of hockey development) are helping me a lot. I give lots of credit to them also.”

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While the offensive numbers aren’t there yet — Slafkovsky has 2-5-7 totals in 26 games — he is starting to have a physical presence on the ice.

“In general, it’s just helping a young kid understand how to play the game and you have to play with some anticipation,” St. Louis said. “What’s the most likely next play, especially on the forecheck, for a big player like Slaf? Being F1 (the first forward in the offensive zone on a forecheck) is easy … it’s the easiest thing to do. You’re a dog on a bone, you’re trying to go towards the puck. It’s F2 and F3 you got to read. As an F2, it’s like what’s the most likely next play? So you have to anticipate that and he’s doing a good job.

“If you don’t move your feet, it’s hard to use your size,” St. Louis added. “So there’s an anticipation and understanding where the game’s going. So I think he’s anticipating really well and he gets there on time so he can use his body. It’s hard to use your body if you’re in-between or (get) there late. So, to me, why he’s able to use his body it’s because he’s using his feet.”

Grip your stick!

When I was a kid playing minor hockey, I had a coach who would skate up behind players in practices and scrimmages and slash the sticks out of our hands.

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“Always grip your stick!” he would yell after our sticks would hit the ice.

I always think about that coach when I see Slafkovsky get his stick knocked out of his hands — or hand, since he often skates around with one hand on his stick. It happened to Slafkovsky again in each of the last two games and each time he looked up at the referee and gestured, wondering why there was no penalty called.

“Some of these plays have been penalties this year,” St. Louis said after practice Friday. “I guess for a young player in this league he’s seeing this called and now it’s not called. I get it … Slaf gets emotional sometimes. I understand it.”

As for a teenage player getting into a habit of gesturing toward a referee looking for a penalty call, St. Louis said: “He probably shouldn’t do that.”

If a player lost his stick every time an opponent whacked at it in an NHL game and it was always called a penalty, there would be a constant parade to the box.

Juraj, grip your stick!

What’s happened to Goal Caufield?

Heading into this season, the Canadiens’ Cole Caufield had scored 48 goals in 83 games since St. Louis took over as head coach.

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Caufield scored 26 goals in 46 games last season and was on pace to finish with 46 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. This season, Caufield has seven goals in 26 games, which puts him on a pace to finish the 82-game season with 22 goals. Caufield has gone four games without a goal and has only two in the last 13 games.

Through Thursday’s games, there were 103 players in the NHL with more goals than Caufield.

The Canadiens were obviously expecting more after GM Kent Hughes signed Caufield to an eight-year, US$62.8-million contract in June that has an annual salary-cap hit of US$7.85 million. Caufield is actually earning US$9.975 million this season, including a US$5-million signing bonus.

Caufield is still getting plenty of shots. He leads the Canadiens with 94 shots, which ranked 14th in the NHL through Thursday’s games. But the puck isn’t going in for him like it used to.

Could it be a result of the shoulder surgery last February taking something off his shot? Or maybe the fact Caufield has a tendency to shoot high to the short side — something opposing goalies seem to have figured out?

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“We’ve played 26 games, he’s got seven (goals),” St. Louis said. “He could easily have double that and then it would be all OK, right? He doesn’t. But I think what we’re really focusing on with Cole, it’s not necessarily his scoring the goals — it’s everything else that comes with the game and growing as a player. He hasn’t forgotten how to score goals.

“He’s going to score goals again … we know he’s going to score a lot of goals,” St. Louis added. “But not at the price of not being a more complete player and I think that’s what he’s going through right now. He’s much better defensively, he’s way more engaged physically, and we’re asking him to do the things that the game is asking him to do — not just what Cole wants to do. He might have played a little more freely in the past, but I don’t think he’s not going to score goals because he becomes a complete player. He’s going through a process right now.”

Fans losing patience?

One of the biggest questions about this rebuilding process for the Canadiens is how long Montreal will fans remain patient?

“I don’t know how patient our fans will be, but I’m very impressed with how supportive they are of a team that’s in 28th place,” Canadiens owner/president Geoff Molson said last March when I had a one-on-one interview with him in his Bell Centre office. “It’s been 14 years I’ve been doing this and I don’t know of a point in my lifetime where the Montreal Canadiens have said we’re doing a rebuild and I did it.

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“The fans, it’s almost like they’ve been waiting for it and they’re happy that we’re doing it,” Molson added. “How long they’re going to wait until we get there? I don’t know the answer to that question. You look at Toronto, Edmonton, Buffalo, New Jersey, they’ve all gone through it during the last eight-ish years and it’s hard to do it.”

The Maple Leafs, Oilers, Sabres and Devils are all far ahead of the Canadiens in the rebuilding process, but through Thursday’s games the Leafs were the only one of those teams in a playoff position — and that was a wild-card spot.

Rebuilds are never easy and there’s no guarantee they will work.

Some Montreal fans showed they’re starting to lose patience when they booed the Canadiens off the ice after Thursday’s 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings at the Bell Centre that dropped their record to 11-12-3. It marked the second time this season the Kings have shut the Canadiens out by the same score.

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“Nobody likes that,” St. Louis said when asked about the boos. “I think it’s the first time this year. We didn’t score a goal and we didn’t have a great push in the third (period). I believe this is a one-off because I feel our team’s been battling all year. We were a little deflated, I think, because we felt that we were with them for two periods and down three (goals) it’s a big mountain to climb against that team. I think we were just a little deflated.

“If we scored an early one in the third (period) it could have been a different story, but they got another goal in the third,” St. Louis added. “I understand their feeling and it’s something that we do everything we can to not have them feel that in a game and we’ll keep pushing.”

Missing Danault

Nobody on the Canadiens misses Phillip Danault more than Brendan Gallagher.

Before he left the Canadiens and signed a six-year, US$33-million contract with the Kings in the summer of 2021, Danault was part of one of the best five-on-five forward lines in the NHL, along with Gallagher and Tomas Tatar.

Gallagher had back-to-back 30-plus goal seasons with Danault as his centreman in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and most likely would have had another one the next season when he was limited to 59 games because of injuries but still finished with 22 goals.

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In the three seasons since Danault left Montreal, Gallagher has 20 goals in 119 games, including five this season. Tatar has yet to score a goal 24 games this season with the Colorado Avalanche.

Meanwhile, Danault scored a career-high 27 goals during his first season with the Kings, had 18 goals last season and has six this season.

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Gallagher was looking forward to chatting with Danault after Thursday’s game.

“I’d like to win one of these damn games (against the Kings),” Gallagher said. “He’s playing really good hockey. I’m happy for him. He was able to go to L.A. Him and his family are really happy. They got a good team, they got a good shot at (the Stanley Cup). Good for him.”

Gallagher also had a chance to speak with Danault after the game in Los Angeles last month, but they haven’t been able to get together for dinner.

“He wouldn’t buy me dinner (in L.A.) and I don’t really want to buy him dinner,” Gallagher said with a grin. “So maybe that’s where our stalemate’s at.”

The Kings have set an NHL record with 11 straight road wins to start the season and they have a 16-4-3 record overall. The Kings play a very effective 1-3-1 defensive system, which some critics call boring. But the Kings had 42 shots against the Canadiens Thursday and they rank first in the NHL in offence, scoring an average of 3.87 goals per game. The Kings are also tied for third in the league in shots with an average of 33.4 per game.

“They’re smart,” Gallagher said about the Kings. “They’re getting good (at the 1-3-1). Teams are throwing different things at them and they’re making adjustments. I think early on (Thursday) we had a little bit of success, but as the game goes on they adjust and they understand what we’re trying to do. It’s effective.”

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A $9-million man

As the lottery ads say: “Money doesn’t change you, but …”

Canadiens goalie Samuel Montembeault promises that money won’t change him after signing a three-year, US$9.45-million contract last Friday that will kick in next season. The annual average salary of US$3.15 million is a significant raise from the US$1 million Montembeault is earning this season.

Montembeault should be set for life now financially, but he comes from humble beginnings with his family in Becancour, located in the Centre-du-Québec region. He grew up using mismatched second-hand goalie equipment until he reached the midget Espoir level.

Montembeault learned the night before his new contract was officially announced it was a done deal and called his parents to let them know.

“There was a lot of emotion last weekend,” the soft-spoken and humble Montembeault said after Thursday’s game. “I got a lot of messages. It was a great moment. I’ve come a long way. I was glad we got it done. It’s not going to change anything for me — the way I play or the way I behave off the ice. I was just really happy to get that done.

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“My parents were really happy,” the goalie added. “I called them the night before when we were in Columbus. Everybody (including his brother) was really happy for me. After that, we had a day off on Friday, so I drove back to my parents’ (house) and we had dinner there.”

Montembeault didn’t grow up in a hockey family. In fact, he’s the only one in his family who knows how to skate.

“My dad was a really good baseball player,” he said. “But they’ve always supported me in hockey. I come from a small town. When I was in Grade 10 or 11, my bus stop was a 10-minute drive from home. So every morning my parents had to drive me there and then I had a 45-minute bus drive to get to the school. They made a lot of sacrifices for me.”

Grandma knows best

Josh Anderson looked like he was fighting back tears on the bench after finally scoring his first goal of the season in Monday’s 4-2 win over the Seattle Kraken at the Bell Centre.

It was an empty-netter, but they all count.

It’s easy for fans — and the media — to sometimes forget NHL players are also human beings. Yes, they make a lot of money (Anderson is earning US$8 million this season) and live what can be a charmed life, but they also have the same emotions as the rest of us. The mental toll on Anderson must have been brutal as he went 24 games without a goal to start the season after scoring 21 goals in 69 games last season.

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“It’s funny,” a visibly relieved Anderson said in the locker room after finally scoring. “I had a text from my grandmother a week ago and she said: ‘It’s like a flashlight. When the batteries run out, you got to recharge them and just keep going. Tomorrow’s a new day and you got to focus on that.’ I got to keep doing that.”

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Not a morning man

The Canadiens held an optional morning skate ahead of Thursday’s game. Nineteen players took part, but veteran centre Sean Monahan wasn’t one of them.

“To be honest, I’m not a big fan of morning skates,” Monahan said. “I never really had an optional skate until my fifth year in the NHL. Once I was able to do that I kind of take advantage of it. I found it didn’t make a difference if I skated in the morning or not. It doesn’t change how I feel if I skate or not in the morning.”

Monahan said he’s always one of the first players to arrive at the Bell Centre the morning of a game day even if he doesn’t go on the ice.

“Staying off the ice, I get to do some work in the gym and do other things to be ready to play,” he said.

Monahan’s 11-year NHL career has been full of injuries. During his nine seasons with the Calgary Flames, he had surgeries on both hips, along with two hernia surgeries and wrist surgery. Last season — his first with the Canadiens — Monahan was limited to 25 games because of a broken foot and a groin injury that required surgery.

When the Canadiens were on a three-game California trip last month, Monahan skipped practice on Nov. 23 for a therapy day after playing against the Anaheim Ducks the night before with back-to-back games against the San Jose Sharks and the Kings coming up the next two days.

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“It’s a long season,” Monahan said when asked about the therapy day. “Sometimes, it’s just a mental reset in staying off the ice and sometimes your body just needs a break. “

Monahan has played in all 26 games this season, posting 8-7-15 totals. His eight goals are the most on the Canadiens.

The Canadiens held an optional practice Friday in Brossard before flying to Buffalo, where they will play the Sabres on Saturday (7 p.m., CBC, SN360, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM). Not surprisingly, Monahan wasn’t among the 12 players on the ice Friday morning.

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