Day 1 of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft is in the books, and it was an interesting one, especially for Montreal Canadiens fans. General manager Kent Hughes continues to take big strides to rebuild his team and isn’t afraid to do what he thinks he must to achieve that.
Once the dust had settled, Hughes had drafted first overall, made two trades for a roster player, and still held onto the 26th and 33rd overall picks.
Canadiens Pick Their Man
The first item on Hughes’ agenda was to pick the best player available at first overall. As it turned out, for the Canadiens’ brain trust, that player was Juraj Slafkovsky, the 6-foot-4, 223-pound winger hailing from Slovakia.
When the Canadiens started their free fall in the 2021-22 season standings, fans began to get excited about the possibility of a top pick. Then once the Habs won the draft lottery, there was a nonstop debate on whether it should be Slafkovsky or Shane Wright. For a couple of years, the consensus choice was Wright, the centerman granted exceptional status two years ago to play in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).
Instead, they went with the Slovakian power forward, who has the potential to become an elite player in the NHL if he develops properly. He showed that promise when he lit up the Olympics with seven goals in seven games, earning Most Valuable Player honors and helping his country win a bronze medal. He followed that up with nine points in eight games at the Men’s World Hockey Championships. While he looked great internationally when given a larger role, his league play with TPS in the Liiga left something to be desired. This is why many in attendance in Montreal were hoping they would go with the OHL center.
It didn’t go unnoticed by Slafkovsky that a large contingent of those fans were wearing various puns about making the “Wright” pick, and he vowed to win them all over.
Hockey is their passion as well as mine. Maybe some of them didn’t like me. But I will do everything that I can (to) play good for this team and they will actually maybe like me one day.-Juraj Slafkovsky
He was then seen stepping up into an excited crowd, giving fans high-fives, and then wandering the Bell Center meeting as many people as he could, flashing a massive smile and sharing laughs with Habs fans who began to appreciate his charm. With a big winger in the fold, that left Hughes to find a way to add a young top-six center to complement the Canadiens’ young core.
Canadiens Add a Coveted Center
Habs fans hoping for their GM to make a splash on the draft floor didn’t have to wait long. Only minutes after selecting Slafkovsky, Hughes made not one, but two trades to acquire Kirby Dach from the Chicago Blackhawks.
The first deal saw the Canadiens trade up in the draft by parting ways with the 96th pick and 22-year-old, heavy-hitting defenceman, Alexander Romanov to the New York Islanders in return for the 13th overall pick. He began to come into his own this past season, proving he was capable of playing in a top-four role while providing a physical brand of hockey. Romanov was a heavy price to pay in the deal, but with defenders such as Jordan Harris, Kayden Guhle, and Arbor Xhekaj close to making their way into the lineup, it was a trade from a position of strength.
Then, just as the gasps from the crowd turned to silent anticipation, Gary Bettman announced the second trade in 30 seconds, this one seeing the Habs flip that 13th pick, along with the 66th overall pick for Kirby Dach, a 6-foot-4, 197-pound centerman.
Dach was Hughes’ target for a few weeks leading up to the draft. The 21-year-old is entering his fourth NHL season and was expected to be Chicago’s top center. Drafted third overall in 2019, he was supposed to be a core player for the Blackhawks, then he suffered a broken wrist in a World Junior Championship pre-tournament game in December of 2020. That injury set back his development, and with new management in Chicago, he fell out of favor.
Dach, a restricted free agent, will be in need of a new contract. The Canadiens’ will not be done making deals this summer either, as the salary cap constraints they face need to be sorted out before they have the space to sign the young pivot to his next contract.
Dach is slated to be the Habs’ second-line center behind Nick Suzuki. With him, Hughes added size and skill to complement a young forward group in need of both. He still hasn’t had his breakout season yet, having scored only 59 points in 152 career NHL games, but his playoff record of six points in nine games does point to a player who has the potential of becoming a productive point producer.
Hughes has continued to make waves as he goes about reshaping the Canadiens’ system. His plan to get bigger and faster took a massive leap forward with the addition of two big young players. While there are no guarantees that either will meet their full potential, there is no doubt that he is a person who is willing to go for the home run swing instead of making the safe choices all the time. If the Canadiens hope to become a Stanley Cup Contender, those types of risks must be taken.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 28 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist to guide him in informing his readers and his goal of being a trusted source of information and entertainment.