“From the Slovakia national team…” Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes said as he announced the No. 1 pick in the 2022 Upper Deck NHL Draft at the Bell Center on Thursday.
Immediately, a loud mix of gasps and cheers could be heard. Home fans knew that meant the Canadiens were drafting forward Juraj Slafkovsky, not center Shane Wright, the most anticipated player.
Slavkovsky knew it too.
“I didn’t even hear my name,” he said. “I heard ‘Slovak’.”
He saw her face on the big screen and got goosebumps. Soon after, she stepped out from under the Canadiens’ Stanley Cup banners and retired numbers to don the bleu, blanc et rouge, to take the torch from weak hands, now suddenly hers to hold high.
When asked if he was surprised, he said: “Shane was projected as No. 1 [for years], so yes, of course. I’m very happy about that.”
That moment alone would have made this draft unforgettable for Montreal. However, Hughes, less than seven months after being hired on January 19, had another surprise in store.
The Canadiens changed the defense Alexander Romanov and the 98th pick to the New York Islanders for the 13th pick, then flipped the 13th pick and the 66th pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for the middle kirby dachwho was the number 3 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.
Montreal also selected forward Filip Mesar, another Slovak and a friend of Slafkovsky, in 26th place.
Wright, ranked the No. 1 American skater by NHL Central Scouting, seemed like the popular choice entering the draft. Some booed Slafkovsky as he walked the red carpet on Thursday. At least one wore a “Wright No. 51” Canadiens jersey in the arena. At least three were wearing T-shirts that read “WRIGHT CHOICE,” with the “C” made from the Canadiens logo.
The Canadiens didn’t make Wright’s call, but maybe they made the right one.
“I just hope that [the fans] I’ll like it too one day, and I’ll do everything [to show] that I’m a good player and that I’m actually making history with Montreal,” Slafkovsky said.
Slafkovsky, ranked the No. 1 European skater by NHL Central Scouting, is a 6-foot-4, 229-pound power forward. He was the Most Valuable Player of the 2022 Beijing Olympics even though he was the youngest in the tournament aged 17 at the time, scoring seven goals in seven games to help Slovakia win bronze.
The 18-year-old impressed Hughes at the 2022 NHL Scouting Combine when Hughes asked if he would be leaving home at 15 to play in Finland.
“I asked him if he lived in a dorm,” Hughes said. ‘He said no.’ And I said, ‘So one of your parents moved in with you?’ He said no.’ So I said, ‘How did you cook?’ And he said: ‘With a stove’.
“He’s very independent. He’s confident without being arrogant, and we think this is a kid that not only has the mindset that we’re looking for, but we also evaluated where he is in his game, what he has in terms of natural abilities and where he could be. if we help him in that process”.
Hughes said the Canadians were leaning toward taking Slafkovsky on Wednesday morning, but wanted to meet with him one more time. When they met with him Thursday morning, Hughes was joined by owner Geoff Molson, executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton and others. Slavkovksy did not read too much into it.
“I didn’t know if Shane had also met with the owner, so I thought, ‘Maybe he had [a meeting with Molson] too, and it doesn’t mean anything,’” Slafkovsky said with a laugh. “Yeah, but actually, it meant something.”
Hughes said the Canadiens didn’t want to give up Romanov, a 22-year-old who averaged 20:24 in 79 games for them last season. But they wanted to get bigger and faster on the middle ice, and they added another 6-foot-4 player with potential.
Dach had 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists) in 152 games for the Blackhawks over three seasons, but he is still 21 years old. He can grow with the core of the Canadiens.
“We’re going to put money into developing hockey players and trying to make the most of their potential, and we think Kirby has significant potential,” Hughes said. “And we’re hopeful that with the Montreal Canadiens in this environment, we can bring him in and get him to a point where he’s a pretty special center.”
The expectations will be high, the pressure intense. But if they reach their potential, they will be loved in Montreal.
Fans already began hugging Slafkovsky about 90 minutes after his selection, when he walked from the draft floor through the stands and then sat down for a television interview in full view of the crowd. People stood up and gave him a standing ovation, patting him on the back, taking pictures. Finally, they serenaded him.
“Ole! Ole-ole-ole! Ole! Ole!”
Slavkovsky seemed determined to measure up.
“First overall is something, and you have to prove it,” he said. “So yeah, I’ll just think about getting better every second I live on this earth.”