Breaking down Juraj Slafkovský’s rookie season with the Canadiens through his puck touches

A conversation I had with Montreal Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis at the draft in Nashville on Juraj Slafkovský sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole.

Or perhaps it was a black hole, I don’t know.

St. Louis, in discussing how Slafkovský’s rookie NHL season went, talked about re-watching some of last season’s Canadiens games and noted Slafkovský stood out perhaps more than he realized in the moment. I found that interesting. Why was that?

And then St. Louis mentioned he thought Slafkovský’s final game of the season, on Jan. 15 at Madison Square Garden, was one of his best of the season. I also found that interesting. Why was that?

“Because he got touches,” St. Louis said then. “As long as you’re getting touches, I don’t really care what you’re doing with it.”

The last part of that quote should be put in context, because St. Louis also mentioned that only applies when you’re a young player. Veterans are expected to do something with their touches, but in Slafkovský’s case, St. Louis was happy when he simply got them regularly during games. That is because there are things you need to do to get touches, positions you need to put yourself in, reads you need to make. There is a process behind touching the puck in the NHL, and for Slafkovský, that process is what was important to St. Louis.

Here is an example of that process. Slafkovský’s puck touch here results in a scoring chance for the Canadiens, but it’s what he does before the touch that’s important.

There were three good things Slafkovský did there before ever touching the puck: first, driving the back post off the entry to provide an option for Josh Anderson, he presented himself as a good passing option with his stick on the ice when the puck got worked up to Arber Xhekaj, and when Xhekaj instead sent it across to Chris Wideman, Slafkovský moved up in the slot to make himself a better passing option for him as well. What he did once he got the puck wasn’t exactly perfect, basically taking the hockey equivalent of a long fadeaway jumper, but it was effective.

And yet on that play, it is everything leading up to the touch that is so important to St. Louis, and not so much the actual touch itself.

But what St. Louis was saying back in Nashville got me thinking. Did Slafkovský actually touch the puck more in that final game against the Rangers than he had in other games? Because I didn’t remember him having a particularly effective game, but St. Louis was swearing by it.

There was only one way to find out.

I watched nine of Slafkovský’s games from last season, every fifth game he played, and tracked every time he touched the puck — 167 touches in all (plus 21 on the power play not included here). I wanted to see if they told a story.

First, a couple of disclaimers.

It is important to note this is a sample of only 20 percent of Slafkovský’s games, and it’s only at five-on-five. NHL teams have access to mountains of data like this without having to manually track it like I did, and they have it on not only every game for every player on their team, but every game for every player in the league. I did ask around to a few NHL sources, and the data here is relatively close to what their data shows. Also, this data is somewhat meaningless without other forwards to compare it to, so I checked on that as well, and one source said that among NHL forwards, Slafkovský was roughly in the 45th percentile for how often he touches the puck, so just below average. Among Canadiens forwards, he was in the 55th percentile, so just above average. For an 18-year-old rookie, this really isn’t bad.

Also, though St. Louis mentions puck touches constantly and they are clearly something he values, they don’t mean a whole lot without context. Zone deployment, quality of teammates, score effects; there are any number of other factors that can impact how many puck touches — and more importantly, the quality of those touches — a player gets. There is also consistency of teammates; in the nine games I tracked, Slafkovský had eight different sets of linemates. Some of that was injury-related, but some of it wasn’t. He bounced around a fair bit. Consistency of teammates would lead to consistency of role, which would probably lead to more consistency of performance.

That’s worth mentioning because the data doesn’t really show all that much consistency, and thus it’s important to remember there could be reasons behind that aside from the typical inconsistency you would see from an 18-year-old playing in the NHL.

So, going back to what St. Louis said about Slafkovský’s last game of the season, he didn’t really get all that many touches in that game. In fact, it was the second-lowest rate of puck touches Slafkovský got relative to his ice time in our nine-game sample.

This is a chart representing Slafkovský’s puck touches per 60 minutes of ice time for every game I tracked (I converted it to a rate stat to account for the variance in ice time from game to game).

So how does that jive with what St. Louis said? I think I have an explanation.

While tracking every puck touch Slafkovský had in our sample, I also assigned a positive or negative grade to each one. This is highly subjective, but my reasoning behind the grade had more to do with intent than the result of the touch. And here are two clips that perfectly reflect that.

This is Slafkovský’s first touch of his NHL career, and even though it resulted in the Canadiens maintaining possession and ultimately entering the zone, I gave it a negative grade because Slafkovský made a poor decision at the offensive blue line. The play to make here was to chip it in and go after it because he had no space to beat the defenceman wide and enter the zone with control, a reality in the NHL that is quite different from what he was used to in Europe.

In the second period of that opening game, Slafkovský was faced with a similar situation and had already made the adjustment. Even though this resulted in a turnover, it still got a positive grade because it was the correct play to make on that puck touch at the offensive blue line.

So, that describes my thought process in how to determine whether a puck touch was positive or negative. It is worth noting that the bar for a positive puck touch is relatively low; basically, the intent has to be good and nothing awful can happen. The bar for a negative touch is relatively high; the intent has to be misguided and wrong. The vast majority of NHL players, Slafkovský included, know what to do on the vast majority of their puck touches and execute that decision well.

Out of Slafkovský’s 167 touches over our nine-game sample, I determined 75.4 percent of them, or 126 of them, to be positive. But look at which game has the highest percentage of positive touches.

Slaf positive touches over season

In that final game of his season, even though Slafkovský had a relatively low number of puck touches, he had an excessively high number of positive touches — 14 out of 16, to be exact.

But really, at least in our sample, that game is a bit of an outlier. And you can look at some of the lesser games and see very real consequences. His lowest rate of both puck touches and successful puck touches was in Game 15, where he didn’t see the ice for the final 7:18 of a 3-1 win in Columbus.

When you look at Slafkovský’s 25th game, a 5-2 loss at home to the Anaheim Ducks, he got his most touches per 60 minutes of ice time of our sample. But he was still benched for the second half of the third period because his rate of successful touches was rather pedestrian.

Ultimately, it seems like St. Louis’ assertion that he doesn’t care what happens with the touches as long as you’re getting them is not entirely accurate.

Another way to extract meaning from puck touches is by looking at where they happen on the ice. And in Slafkovský’s case, there is definitely a lack of neutral zone touches, which would suggest a lack of impact in the transition game.

Slaf touches by zone over season

The encouraging thing is the neutral zone touches were rising as the season went along, aside from in that final game in New York where it dipped, and that shows growth in an area that was deficient. But in terms of successful touches, the neutral zone remained the most problematic for Slafkovský.

Slafkovský’s puck touches











% of all touches


























If there is a conclusion to be drawn from all this data, I think it lies in that final data set. Slafkovský needs to become more of a factor in the neutral zone to help the Canadiens transition from defence to offence. It doesn’t need to be his biggest strength, but it can’t be a weakness, either. Essentially, the growth he showed in that area of the ice needs to continue.

It is easy to say it will be on Slafkovský to show that growth, but I would draw your attention back to the disclaimers at the top of this story. Usage is a big factor here, and the Canadiens need to play their part in encouraging that growth as well. That means consistency in usage, consistency in teammates and, ultimately, consistency in performance.

But what was more important than the data was the process of watching 167 puck touches because it provided a window into why St. Louis mentions this constantly when evaluating how a player — not just Slafkovský — is playing. Getting those touches is the result of a process of understanding how the game works, how it flows and where it is going. For a young player, that is what is most important.

And while there were some ups and downs for Slafkovský in that regard over the course of his shortened rookie season, it is not difficult to see he was trending upward in terms of understanding the nuts and bolts of how NHL hockey is played as the season advanced, even if his production didn’t show it.

This is likely what St. Louis meant in Nashville when he said re-watching a lot of those games showed him how much Slafkovský stood out, how noticeable he was.

And St. Louis is the one in charge of how Slafkovský is used, who his linemates are and what situations he is put in during his sophomore season in the NHL. The data from his rookie season might not look great, but his usage was a big factor in that.

And the fact St. Louis recognized some things in retrospect he might not have realized in real time would suggest that perhaps those usage hurdles might get removed this season.

(Photo of Juraj Slafkovský: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

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