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Juraj Slafkovský a cautionary tale that Coyotes avoided with Logan Cooley

Craig Morgan Avatar
November 2, 2023
Šimon Nemec of the New Jersey Devils, second overall pick, Juraj Slafkovský of the Montreal Canadiens, first overall pick, and Logan Cooley of the Arizona Coyotes, third overall pick, pose for a photo during the first round of the 2022 Upper Deck NHL Draft at Bell Centre on July 07, 2022 in Montreal, Quebec. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Juraj Slafkovský’s story should sound familiar to Coyotes fans. Taken first overall at the 2022 NHL Draft, Slafkovský made the Montréal Canadiens opening-night lineup three months later. In 39 games, he mostly looked like an 18-year-old in a man’s league, managing four goals and 10 points before an ACL injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season.

Not much has changed through nine games of the 2023-24 season. After a strong first couple of games, Slafkovský has struggled, notching just one assist (in the season opener) and posting a goals-for percentage of 44 at 5-on-5. 

“I don’t think he should have been in the NHL last year and I don’t think he should be in the NHL this year,” said TSN analyst and former NHL GM Craig Button. “He’s not ready for the league. He’s not ready to perform in the league. He’s not able to impact the game. There’s nothing negative about that. It’s just reality. Forget about him having success. He’s in the middle of deep water, just trying to hang on.” 

Slafkovský’s struggles have led many Canadiens fans to call for his demotion to the American Hockey League, but to date, the organization has remained steadfast in its belief that he belongs in the NHL. That belief baffles Button.

“NHL teams fail players way more than players fail on their own, and the Montréal Canadiens have not set Juraj up for success,” he said. “He’s a day late and a dollar short everywhere so the idea that he can somehow develop in the NHL is puzzling, to say the least. 

“They’re failing him. It’s a lesson that somehow hasn’t been learned.”

2022 first overall pick Juraj Slafkovský will face off against No. 3 pick Logan
Cooley when the Canadiens come to Mullett Arena on Thursday to play the Coyotes. (Getty Images)

Through multiple management staffs, the Coyotes made the same mistake with many prospects over the years. Danny Briére, Peter Mueller, Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Connor Murphy, Max Domi, Brendan Perlini, Dylan Strome, Clayton Keller and Barrett Hayton all probably would have benefitted from a more consistent commitment to develop them in the AHL, or at least at another level where they could taste success and work on their games.

The Bill Armstrong-John Ferguson Jr. management team has ushered in a different way of thinking that can be seen in their decisions to overbake Dylan Guenther and even the guy who went two spots later than Slafkovský in the draft, Logan Cooley. The Coyotes center played a full season at the University of Minnesota and contemplated a second season before turning pro this summer. In nine games, he has a goal, seven points and a goals-for percentage of 50.2 at 5-on-5.

“Whether you think Logan Cooley would have benefited from another year at Minnesota, at least there’s building blocks in place for him and a level of development that’s happened outside the demands of the NHL,” Button said. “That hasn’t happened for Juraj. He’s a good solid player, but you need to have building blocks in place for your game before you get to the NHL. He doesn’t have those building blocks in place. He doesn’t know how to use his size. He doesn’t know how to gain advantage with his size. He doesn’t know how to hold advantages with his size. He is not a finisher and he doesn’t have the puck a lot.

“In Vegas on Monday, [Montréal] coach Marty St. Louis tried to put him on the power play just to get him the puck. So you’re gonna have him on the wall with the puck trying to make plays? Is that really what you want him to be?”

Cooley is by no means a finished product. His first goal of the season came on Wednesday at Anaheim and he is still learning what he can do with the puck through the neutral zone and at the offensive blue line. A couple of costly mistakes earned him a benching in the third period of Friday’s collapse against the Los Angeles Kings, but he logged 17:59 of ice time in an 8-1 win against Chicago on Monday.

There is no point debating which team made the better choice at the 2022 NHL Draft in Montréal. Only 11 players from that draft class have even played an NHL game, and Slafkovský (48), Columbus defenseman David Jiříček (12) and Anaheim defenseman Pavel Mintyukov (10) are the only three who have logged at least 10. That said, there are analysts such as The Athletic’s Corey Pronman and Flo Hockey’s Chris Peters who constantly evaluate the pecking order.

“I update it every year and honestly, even a month into the season, things might change,” said Pronman, who still listed Slafkovský first in his 2022 re-draft published just before the season began. “Cooley has looked promising and Slafkovský is kind of fighting it right now in the first month of the season. 

“Slav didn’t have a great rookie season but he was in the NHL and Cooley was in college so there was still a size question and questions about how his game was going to translate when I wrote that story. I know Cooley has had a couple of off-games and we’re very early in the season, but it’s fair to say he’s looked more impressive. I think if you wanted to twist my arm and say, ‘Well, Cooley should be No. 1 or Jiříček should be No. 1,’ I think that would be a reasonable argument at this stage.”

Like Slafkovský, Cooley has yet to unveil his full arsenal.

“He can get into trouble sometimes because we will do that offensive blue line stuff where he’s turning the puck over trying to beat guys, but he’s competitive, and when he’s in his little fuck-you mode, that’s actually when he’s really good,” Peters said. “That’s why I always liked him better than Shane Wright. He competes every frickin’ game. He might go south. He might get a little pouty faced and that’s when he’s not as good, but when he’s mad, he’s good.”

Logan Cooley celebrates his first NHL goal with teammates against the Anaheim Ducks in Anaheim on Wedesday. (Getty Images)

Peters was one of several analysts who had Cooley listed at No. 1 before the 2022 draft. Nothing has swayed him from that opinion.

“Slafkovský has the potential to be a great player, but the only thing that he has that’s advantageous to him over Cooley is his size,” Peters said. “It’s not a small thing because the NHL can be a big man’s game, but when it comes to hockey sense, skill, skating, compete level, all those things, Cooley is better. I felt very early on that he was the most dynamic player in that class and I think that still is true. 

“What I think you’re seeing early is that he’s looking off the net too much. He’s not a shot threat at the moment because he’s looking to make a play. That’s OK to a point because he can make plays and he can make passes, but he definitely has to direct more pucks to the net if he’s gonna have success. But as far as the speed of the game, he processes the game just fine.

“He’s able to play at the NHL pace. I think his handles have looked mostly good. Last year when he was torching the NCAA, he made the same mistake with the puck that proved costly — the mistakes that you can’t make in the NHL — but you don’t want him to lose that confidence or swagger with the puck because that’s such a big part of what he is.”

Pronman doesn’t think the lack of goal scoring will remain an issue for Cooley, who has just nine shots in nine games.

“I think he’s got a good shot,” Pronman said. “At the junior and the college level, he’s shown that he can finish from range. I think his shot is an asset. I don’t think it’s the main thing about his game that gets you excited, but he can score goals. I have no issues with that aspect of his game.

“The biggest challenge when guys jump up to the NHL at 19 is usually the physicality of the game and their strength. That’s just the one question I have with Cooley. It’s not that he isn’t a great prospect and won’t have a long, successful career. He might even have a strong season. It’s just: Is he ready to be a go-to guy for 82 games this season?”

The Coyotes have structured their lineup so that Cooley won’t have to be. And because they waited a year, Cooley is already enjoying far more success than Slafkovský.

“The longer you go without having success, the more you have to ask: ‘What are you building?'” Button said. “Curtis Lazar was one of the best young players in his age group at 15 and 16. He gets drafted mid-first round (in 2013) by the Ottawa Senators, goes back to Edmonton (Oil Kings), and wins a Memorial Cup and scores 41 goals. He looks like he’s right on track. 

“Then the Ottawa Senators decide they’re gonna have him in the NHL and they have him play third, fourth line at 19. The next year, they have him play third, fourth line again. Now he’s moving further away from the reason they drafted him, which was to be a goal scorer. In his third year of pro, they decide they’re gonna send him down to the American Hockey League to find his scoring touch. He’s had two years in the NHL and now you’re sending him down. It messes with a kid’s head. It messes with his confidence, and yeah, it can impact players negatively for a very long time.

“I don’t think it’s too late for Slafkovský, but it’s a decision that they have to make soon. He’s not having the success that Logan Cooley has because he’s not ready like Logan Cooley was.”

Top photo via Getty Images: New Jersey’s Šimon Nemec, Montréal’s Juraj Slafkovský, and Arizona’s Logan Cooley pose for a photo at the 2022 NHL Draft at Centre Bell in Montréal.

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