Who is Maxim Čajkovič?
Cajcovic is a forward with elite skill and high end potential, but a modest showing on a severely struggling team and some rumors of off-ice conduct issues have led prospect watchers have pulled back on this sharpshooter. At 5’11”, 185lbs he’s not the biggest guy on the ice, but he makes his presence known in a big way. Cajkovic’s QMJHL team the St. John Sea Dogs finished this season with a -195 goal differential and a 13-49-2 record. Devils fans might recognize some of the teams struggles—they iced as many as 8 rookies this season. Despite the bitter season, Cajkovic was a bright spot for the Sea Dogs, leading the team with 22 goals and 24 assists in 60 games, a dozen points ahead of everyone else on their roster. He averages 3.6 shots per game and a 10.2% SH, and finished this season 3rd in goals and 5th in total points among league rookies.
46 points in 60 games is nowhere near the elite kind of numbers we’re used to seeing from this year’s prospects, but on a team that finished the season with only 32 points, its worth a second look. Cajkovic recorded either a goal or an assist on 27% of the teams goals this season. At the World Junior Championships this year, he put up 3 goals and 4 assists on the teams total 15 goals, an impressive ~50% impact. Cajkovic is no stranger to impressing at the World Juniors either— last years WJC saw a 4 goal, 7 assist outing from the winger in just 5 games, leading the entire tournament in assists. This year, he didn’t lead the tournament in assists, but he did in another category—penalty minutes. Cajkovic managed an impressive 31 PIM in 5 games
Where is Maxim Čajkovič Ranked?
A first overall pick in the 2018 CHL Import Draft, big things were expected of Cajkovic this season, and whether you blame the team, the change in rink size, or just poor performance, Cajkovic just didn’t deliver to most scouts’ expectations. He fell from 59th at midterms down to 91st for European skaters on NHL Central Scouting’s rankings. Other rankings seem a bit higher on Cajkovic, but most of them all consist of a second-third round ranking with an impressive drop from his earlier expectations-
-Larry Fisher: 51st
-Steve Kournianos: 67th
-Andrew Forbes: 49th
-Ryan Pike: 63rd
-Future Considerations: 67th
-Elite Prospects: 47th
What Have Other People Said About Čajkovič?
Cajkovic has some mixed reviews, but the general consensus is that the kid is dangerous with the puck. Prospect Pipeline described Cajkovic as a “magician” with the puck, saying “Maxim Cajkovic is an enticing winger with supreme skills. He has the ability to put the game in his hands through dynamic offensive abilities. Cajkovic plays with a shoot-first mentality and possesses a tremendous release with precision accuracy. He often changes shooting angles on the goaltender right before firing a strong wrist shot which can beat the keeper clean. Cajkovic also boasts a pair of mesmerizing hands which can make defencemen look foolish on a regular basis. He is a very creative player who utilizes his hockey sense and vision of developing plays to sift through traffic with ease.”
Cajkovic’s shot is his biggest and most complimented trait, but his acceleration is a close second. “His first three steps are among the best of his age group, allowing him to punish opponents on turnovers with his speed, good hands, and a powerful shot. He’s deceptive in his skating in that there’s a willingness to change gears mid-flight to help throw off defenders,” says Aaron Vickers of Elite Prospects. Vickers did also note though that Cajkovic’s in-zone speed is “limited”, and he can be out-muscled in battles, so his best performance comes from rushes and on-the-fly plays.
Cajkovic has his share of negative reviews as well, and they may be the biggest things to push teams away from the talented winger in this draft. At 5’11” 185, hes not small for QMJHL standards but several reviews state he has a tendency to be out-muscled and needs to get stronger physically. As a winger, his two-way play is arguably the least important of all the players on the ice, but quotes suggesting his defensive game is not so much undeveloped as it is uninterested are definite negatives. “His willingness as a forward to come back on the back check lacks commitment.” Others have noted that his exceptional playmaking may be overshadowed by a tendency to try to push plays and overplay the puck rather than look for a passing lane until its too late to do so cleanly, often resulting in turnovers.
The most concerning reviews address Cajkovic’s alleged attitude problems. Despite being the best scorer on the team by far, Cajkovic was benched for a few game back in November/December, with reports stating it was due to his poor attitude with teammates. Scouts have also noted he “needs to mature as a young man with respect to his relationship with his teammates and improve his off-ice training”.
A Few Visual Aids...
Maxim Cajkovic showcase his great acceleration and stick-handling to scored his 2nd goal of the season tonight. #2019NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/TvYyqOhWFE— Andy Lehoux (@Andylehoux1) September 29, 2018
This play shows Cajkovic pulling out just a little bit of everything in his arsenal for this goal. Other players might have a better top speed, but he gets to his top speed faster than anyone else on the ice in this clip. He’s calm with the puck despite three players on his tail, and his quick hands leave little for the goalie to work with. There’s four other Sea Dogs on the ice, but none of them even begin to keep up with the play he’s driving here.
Here’s a different view of the same speed-
#2019NHLDraft prospect Maxim Cajkovic shows off his separation gear for a goal last night. pic.twitter.com/PisPyyLHNv— Mitch Brown (@MitchLBrown) September 29, 2018
#2019nhldraft Winger Max Cajkovic has really picked up the pace since the beginning of December.— Rink Rat Report (@RinkRatReport) January 20, 2019
The @SJSeaDogs forward has posted 16 points (7 , 9 s) in his last 12 games with 45 SOG in that span.
Previously he had just 15 points in his first 26 games with 72 SOG pic.twitter.com/0BfDXZhGl6
Same type of play— Cajkovic creates separation, blows by the defender who in this play is forced to hold back to mind the second player who’s neither keeping up with Cajkovic nor really making much of an effort to stay open. Instead of going for the moves in the crease though, which would have been a tough play with the defender on the inside, he smartly opts for a wrist shot—and roofs it.
Here’s that wrist shot again, this time beating Russia’s Skotnikov (who finished his MHL season with a .935 SV% this year)—
Maxim Cajkovic makes it 1-1. Nice wrist shot for the Saint Johns Sea Dogs forward, who has really fallen down draft rankings this year. #NHLDraft #U18Worlds pic.twitter.com/AzC3sdLjWc— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisTHN) April 18, 2019
When a wrist shot won’t do, Cajkovic also brings a one-timer to the table that has no trouble finding the back of the net.
First career QMJHL goal for Maxim Cajkovic, first overall pick of the 2018 CHL Import Draft. Ridiculous power in that slap shot. #2019NHLDraft #QMJHL pic.twitter.com/95f8rYshx3— Lassi Alanen (@lassialanen) September 23, 2018
Besides just his shot, the last two clips also show an interesting tendency from Cajkovic—for a winger, he plays extremely high in the offensive zone. This gives him the option to either shoot from outside or pick up the puck and dangle into the middle through traffic, rather than put him in the position to have to battle for it in front or behind the net.
#QMJHL: RW Maxim Cajkovic (Ranked No. 24) has been quiet in his QMJHL debut, but here he handles a flip pass on the move cleanly and whips a shot on net that forces Gravel to make a tough save -- all in a matter of three seconds. pic.twitter.com/OvMHHVhUFS— Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) September 22, 2018
I’m gonna let Steve do all the talking on this play. Just look at those hands.
Maxim Cajkovic redefining a goal scorer's goal. I'm guessing he's very good at billiards. pic.twitter.com/QwYMsaQ8Ez— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) February 20, 2019
Assuming Cajkovic wasn’t actually trying to score this off the defender’s skate (which, if he was, draft him 1st OA and sign him now) the interesting part of this isn’t the goal, its the positioning. Cajkovic has literally no options here. He’s being pressured by three players while his teammates do I’m genuinely not sure what but standing still on the opposite side of the opposing team’s defense box is really not a great way to set yourself up for a pass, but Cajkovic nearly finds him anyway. He’s got no lane for a shot and the defenders are close enough that if he tried to skate it he’d very well lose it at the blue line. He’s got very little to work with here but nearly finds the lane for an impossible pass anyway.
Maxim Cajkovic scored a goal in Saint John’s humiliating 10-2 defeat against Halifax last night.— NHL Prospect GIFs (@HPC_YT) February 13, 2019
Cajkovic is now up to 17G, 20A in 46 QMJHL games. #2019NHLDraft #QMJHL pic.twitter.com/6xXlqWHYzO
There’s not much that’s super impressive with this goal, but I included it anyway because look at that score. They’re losing by 6 goals. They end up losing the game 10-2, and yet Cajkovic is driving the net hard and still celebrating after a goal despite what has to be a frustrating game.
A few of the highlights I want to point out in this one— at 0:28, he’s running the ice like its 3-3 overtime and he has all the room in the world. At 1:08, you can see him make that play after what was clearly going to be an effort to back check had the puck not gotten loose and ended up on his stick anyway. At 2:05, you can see the kind of battle he puts in to get that puck to the net—he’s not the biggest or strongest guy and he usually styles his play accordingly, but he shows he can battle and be strong on the puck when he needs to.
The Verdict-To Draft, or Not to Draft?
Cajkovic’s pros and cons might make him one of the most controversial picks in the draft pool this season— is he a talented player dragged down by an inexperienced team and overshadowed by frustrations, or is he a more of a moderately skilled shooter with ego issues? Given how strongly the Devils feel about their commitment to that Locker Room Brotherhood, I can’t see them taking a player who doesn’t get along with his teammates or puts personal success ahead of the team (can you imagine how this season would have looked if Hischier threw a temper tantrum after every bad game?) His 31PIM in 5 games at the WJC doesn’t look like a pattern he kept up in the QMJHL—he had 40 PIM in 60 games back in Canada, but some of those 40 include utterly avoidable penalties such as obvious and unnecessary boarding penalties and 10 minute misconducts for unsportsmanlike conduct. That being said— I’d still take a Sergei Bobrovsky, Zach Sanford or Robert Bortuzzo despite their attitude incidents this season (Bobrovsky was similarly benched for attitude problems on the struggling Blue Jackets and was apparently approached by unhappy teammates after he left and showered in the locker room when getting pulled from a game instead of staying on the bench. Sanford and Bortuzzo summarized St. Louis’s frustrations earlier in the season by getting into a fist fight in practice.) Interviews of Sea Dogs coach Josh Dixon and Cajkovic after the benching suggest a relatively isolated incident in which Cajkovic made his frustration known. Cajkovic stated in an interview that he understood and agreed with the decision to scratch him. His play also picked up after sitting out a few games, which looks to me as though they washed out a few issues and it won’t be a long term problem to deal with. Its not the best look for him, but being a highly talented 17 year old moving to a new continent where the game is slightly different, no one speaks the same language, the team is inexperienced and getting tossed around the ice every game would probably get to just about anyone eventually. As I mentioned in the clips above, he was still putting in the effort and showing positive emotion when scoring in a game where they’re down 5 goals rather than scoring and walking away shaking his head with a “nobody ever helps me in this house” attitude. A bit more of a veteran, mature influence in the locker room or on the bench might be all this rookie needs to settle into a better role.
Some more experienced teammates on the ice would do wonders for the other areas of negative reviews on Cajkovic as well. His tendency to try to force plays likely has a lot to do with constantly playing games where you’re down by 10 goals—what’s the worst that can happen if the play doesn’t pan out, the other team scores again? Oh No? It’s possible the tendency to not backcheck that was noted is derived from this as well. Young, inexperienced teammates that might struggle to create open passing lanes or keep up with the play may influence a player with a shoot-first mindset anyway to try to enter the zone himself rather than risk the pass. In multiple games this season, Cajkovic scored or assisted on the only goal for the Sea Dogs, including at least two games where they lost with a final score of around 10-3, with those three goals being hat tricks from Cajkovic.
What I don’t believe is the argument that Cajkovic is Jack Hughes on a bad team—Cajkovic was involved on over a quarter of the goals his team scored and that’s a fantastic number, but its not the impact a more elite player could have had. Hughes puts in his impact on around a third of the goals on teams where he’s not the only scorer. McDavid picked up points on more than half of the goals the Oilers scored this year, similar to Cajkovic at the WJC but with less PIM and a way bigger sample size. He’s got strong skills in nearly every area and he’s definitely a talented forward, but he’s not a first round pick this season. If we were to take him, I’d say at the end of the second round should be the earliest.
Can he be an impact player at the NHL level? Does the Sea Dogs struggles downplay his skill, or is that just an excuse? What do you think about his supposed attitude— frustration or a legitimate concern moving forward? Where should we pick him, if at all? Leave your idea in the comments below and thanks for reading!