After using their first third round pick on goaltender Hugo Alnefelt, the Tampa Bay Lightning returned to the podium later in the same round and selected Maxim Cajkovic 89th overall. The 5’11 185 lb winger from Slovakia posted 46 points in 60 games for the Saint John’s Sea Dogs in his first season of North American Hockey last year. That’s not an impressive total for a skilled wing, but looking below the surface, Cajkovic has the potential to be the steal of this draft for the Lightning front office.
Prior to coming over to the QMJHL last summer, Cajkovic played in Sweden. He put up impressive numbers at the J18 and J20 levels. He also scored 22 points in 16 games of U18 international play including 11 points in 5 games at the World Championships as a 17 year old. Those performances got the attention of the scouting world and earned him the first overall selection in the CHL import draft in 2018. Coming into the season, he looked like a potential first half of the first round pick in the 2019 NHL draft.
So with all that hype, how did he end up scoring only 46 points and falling to the end of the third round of the draft? To start, the Sea Dogs were a very young, and ultimately very bad, team. They have some talent, though, so they should improve this year. But for Cajkovic, not only did he have to adjust to North American hockey, but he had to do it without much help. In their excellent profile of him, NextGen Hockey found that Cajkovic had some of the least effective teammates of any CHL forward last year and that he improved his teammates performance by a massive amount when he was on the ice.
But the situation isn’t fully to blame for Cajkovic’s weaker than expected results. He also has holes in his game that weren’t as obvious before this season. Scouts vary on how severe these issues are, but all of them acknowledge that his hockey sense is lacking. He misses opportunities for easy passes and skates into danger when other options are available. He makes bad reads at times and wastes open space.
Some of this could be explained in part by the play of his teammates. If he feels he has to do everything, he could be choosing not to make passes he would otherwise make or forcing the play on his own. Sussing out true weaknesses in the way he reads the play from decisions he’s making because he’s not confident in his teammates is difficult. Another season on an improving team should help us get a better handle on exactly how much a problem this is going to be for him.
If his decision making issues prove to be more a product of a challenging situation than a fundamental trait of his game, Cajkovic could be a steal. He has everything else to be a top six forward in the NHL. He’s a strong skater with good top end speed and good agility. In the highlight videos at the end of this article, you’ll see him make some explosive plays.
He has a great shot and uses it frequently. He’s also not limited to one way of scoring goals. He has a variety of shots and scores from all over the offensive zone. Scouts differ on his playmaking ability. He’s shown a capacity to be creative with his passing in the offensive zone and he’s accurate when he decides to pass. But the concerns above about missing obvious plays have him pegged as more of a goal scorer than a passer. However, he’s shown flashes that could indicate more playmaking ability that will show when he gets better teammates.
Overall, Cajkovic is an exciting prospect with loads of talent but some question marks that caused him to drop to the third round. That’s exactly the type of pick teams should be making in that range. Very few players drafted this late become impactful NHL players so taking a swing on upside makes sense in this range. The Lightning made a similar pick a few years ago in Alexei Lipanov. That one hasn’t worked out. Hopefully, this one goes better.
The Bolts started their draft by selecting Nolan Foote in the first round. And while Foote seems like the type of player who is a lock to at least make the NHL, he doesn’t appear to have as much upside as some of the other players on the board at the time. Without a second round pick, the Lightning addressed a need with their first pick of the third round in selecting Alnefelt.
At that point in the draft, it felt like the Lightning had reached a bit for the first two selections and while they had two solid additions to the pipeline, neither player was the type that offered the huge breakout potential the Bolts have been known for under Al Murray. Cajkovic is that player. He’s the one fans could be getting excited about over the next year or two.
How Cajkovic plays next year will be a key indicator for his future. This is obviously true for every drafted player but particularly so for Cajkovic. If he shows that last season’s lacking performance was due to other circumstances and not an accurate reflection of his level of play, the Lightning could have something special. If not, he might project more as a bottom six winger with some scoring pop.
For fans, the most fun selections are players with big upside. Cajkovic is that. Now, we just wait to see if he can fulfill that potential.