Juraj Slafkovsky makes the Canadiens’ roster for the NHL season opener

Defensemen Kaiden Guhle and Jordan Harris are also on the official 23-man roster after the Habs sent six players down to the AHL’s Laval Rocket.

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Juraj Slafkovsky – the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NHL draft – will start the season with the Canadiens.

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The Canadiens announced Monday morning that five players had been sent down to the AHL’s Laval Rocket: defensemen Justin Barron and Otto Leskinen, forwards Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and Jesse Ylönen and goaltender Cayden Primeau.

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Kaiden Guhle, the Canadiens’ first-round pick (16th overall) in the 2020 NHL draft, is also with the team, as are fellow defensemen Jordan Harris and Arber Xhekaj, although he was not on the official 23-man roster. The Canadiens released late Monday afternoon.

Xhekaj was sent down to Laval on Monday afternoon, but it was just a temporary salary cap hit, with the future of Paul Byron still uncertain due to a hip injury that sidelined him throughout training camp and will likely land him on long-term injured reserve. The Canadiens claimed defenseman Jonathan Kovacevic off waivers over the weekend and made him part of their 23-man roster.

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“I texted my parents (back in Slovakia) right away that they can come now,” Slafkovsky said after practice Monday in Brossard about making the team.

The Canadiens open the regular season Wednesday night at the Bell Center against the Toronto Maple Leafs (7 p.m., SN, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio). Canadiens GM Kent Hughes is scheduled to speak to the media at noon Wednesday to discuss the final roster.

“I hope they’ll make it,” Slafkovsky said of his parents getting to Montreal in time for the opener. “I’m sure they’ll do their best.”

The 6-foot-3, 238-pound Slafkovsky said he always believed he could make the team, but added, “There’s some work to do, starting Wednesday.”

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When asked what he needs to do to stick with the Canadiens all season, Slafkovsky said, “Just play my best game every time I get the chance to play. I think if I give it my all, I can I will stay here for a long time and that is what I will try to do.

“I think I improved my game, skating and winning the pucks and doing the right things,” Slafkovsky added of his performance during training camp. “But still there are many of the things that I still don’t do and I still have to do better and better. I still need to do them better. I’m happy that I’m here and I’ll try to do them better.”

Slafkovsky was on the left wing alongside Christian Dvorak and Brendan Gallagher in practice on Monday.

“They have a lot of experience,” Slafkovsky said of his linemates. “It’s just good that I get to play with older guys from the start. They know how the game is played and I’m sure they will also help me during the games and (training).

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Kovacevic, who was claimed off waivers from the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday, joined his new teammates Monday and will wear Jeff Petry’s old No. 26 with the Canadiens.

“Big boy,” said head coach Martin St. Louis when asked about his first impression of the 6-foot-4, 208-pound Kovacevic. “I told him, ‘I don’t know much about you and I want to see how you move and we’ll go from there.’ But it seems like a pretty good first impression, just the size, the way he moves on the ice, we’ll see.”

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Defenseman Logan Mailloux, who has had a shoulder injury, also took part in Monday’s practice. He is expected to return to the OHL’s London Knights after testing his shoulder in practice. The Canadiens selected Mailloux, 19, in the first round (31st overall) of the 2021 NHL draft.

Harris, 22, played 10 games with the Canadiens last season after graduating from Northeastern University, while Guhle, 20, Slafkovsky, 18, and Xhekaj, 21, have yet to play a game in the NHL. The Canadiens selected Harris in the third round (71st overall) of the 2018 NHL draft, while Xhekaj was never drafted and was a dark horse to make the team. Xhekaj’s physical style of play stood out during training camp and he outperformed Barron.

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The Canadiens acquired Barron from the Colorado Avalanche in the Artturi Lehkonen trade at last season’s NHL trade deadline. The Avalanche selected Barron, 20, in the first round (25th overall) of the 2020 NHL draft.

“When I heard that, a lot of things went through my head,” Xhekaj said of being told Monday morning by Canadiens management that he had made the team. “The last two years have been the craziest years a kid can have for me. My parents, they’re the biggest things. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. It’s going to be super special for them.”

St. Louis called Slafkovsky, Harris, Guhle and Xhekaj into a pre-practice meeting to tell them they had made the team.

“They also told us it’s just getting started,” Slafkovsky said. “We know that we have to fight for a permanent place every day. Nothing is handed out.”

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Harris said it was “really special” to know he had made the team along with the other three young players after a long training camp.

“I feel like we’ve been playing for three months together,” Harris said. “We have grown together quickly as a group off the ice and on the ice. Very special. These guys have a great career ahead of them all, so it’s definitely cool to be a part of it as a group.

“We have a really good young core, so hopefully we can grow together.”

scowan@postmedia.com

twitter.com/StuCowan1

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