WASHINGTON (AP) — Juraj Slafkovsky met with Slovakia’s ambassador to the U.S. and his staff following the first two-goal game of his young career, brimming with a smile after signing jerseys and taking photos with folks from back home who are also big fans.
“They just love the game,” Slafkovsky said. “It’s nice to see that those people care, too, and they’re coming to watch these games.”
They came to watch Slafkovsky, who in 2022 became the first Slovak player taken with the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft and is now midway through his second professional season with the Montreal Canadiens. He became the choice atop the draft partially because he showed in the months leading up that he could score goals with an impeccable release — and the 19-year-old is now learning to trust his shot.
“Everyone,” he said, is telling him to shoot more. Well, maybe not ambassador Radovan Javorcik but certainly his teammates and coaches who see in practices and games what Slafkovsky can do.
“I’m trying, but sometimes I see someone else and I’m trying to make a pass, then to find out that it’s not the best option,” Slafkovsky said. “I’ll just keep shooting, I guess.”
Easier said than done for the 6-foot-3, 230-pound pass-first playmaker, who is only two years removed from a breakout performance at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. He helped Slovakia win its first Olympic hockey medal of any kind, was named MVP of the tournament and then was a point-a-game player at the world championships that spring.
Slafkovsky had just four goals and six assists in 39 games during an injury-plagued rookie year with Montreal. He already has doubled that production 50 games in this season, with 22 points on nine goals and 13 assists.
His shot is still a work in progress.
“It’s a progression,” said coach Martin St. Louis, who is in the Hall of Fame as a player. “He’s going to keep evolving in that department. You always kind of find a way to reinvent yourself all the time. With a young player like that, though, he’s working on his shot every day.”
Slafkovsky has scored three times in his past two games sandwiched around the All-Star break, and St. Louis is glad to see that work rewarded with the puck going in the net. Slafkovsky is slowly building the kind of confidence that teammates hope will allow him to let it fly.
“You can see the confidence now that he has with his shot,” forward Jake Evans said. “Both of them were total snipes. That’s huge for him because when you got a guy like that with his shot, having that confidence, it’s pretty lethal and it’s going to help our team a lot.”
Is Evans telling Slafkovsky to shoot more? In his head, he is yelling, “Shoot!” but he won’t be the guy to deliver that message.
He’s leaving that up to linemates Cole Caufield and captain Nick Suzuki, who empathize with a young player who prefers to defer.
“I remember I always wanted to give it to other guys, but when you have those chances to shoot, you have to take advantage,” Suzuki said. “We’re trying to set him up to shoot, so he needs to have that mindset, and he’s doing a better job of that now.”
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