It’s an understatement to say the host Montreal Canadiens shocked the hockey world, picking winger Juraj Slafkovsky first overall at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. It kind of makes sense though, even if only because the “awe” came shortly thereafter, with the acquisition of center Kirby Dach.
Canadiens Shockingly Draft Slafkovsky
Even Slafkovsky himself said he was surprised with the first-overall pick, talking to the media after having gotten selected. That says something seeing as the Canadiens had met with him literally hours before the event. In Slafkovsky’s mind though, it was perfectly normal in the sense it constituted a rescheduled meeting from a few days beforehand.
“We had meetings, but you don’t get to know almost anything from [them],” he said, adding it all ended relatively anti-climactically with them wishing him good luck and just saying they liked him. “I just heard Slovakia [when they called my name first]. I didn’t even listen anymore. I was shaking and I had goosebumps. Unbelievable moment for me.”
Slovakia Set to Celebrate Big Day at Draft
Of course, the fact owner Geoff Molson attended that draft-day meeting might have tipped Slafkovsky off in retrospect. According to Slafkovsky, the two didn’t really talk, but it was a sign the Canadiens were serious about making the big 6-foot-4 winger, the highest-drafted Slovak in NHL history. Countryman Simon Nemec joined him at No. 2 overall, care of the New Jersey Devils. The Habs then added to the Slovak celebration by picking Slafkovsky’s fellow-winger Filip Mesar, with whom he grew up, at No. 26.
“Out of five million people, at least four are up and they’re cheering for us,” Slafkovsky said in reference to the top two picks, prior to the Mesar selection. He was gravy.
Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes conceded to knowing of the good friendship between the two during his media availability after the first round. He added it was more so a nice-to-have than anything else though, calling it a bonus too.
“You could see that with all of them too, and Nemec as well,” Hughes said. “When you have that many in a smaller nation, they play a lot of hockey together. If they didn’t have any of that, the decision to draft Filip was based on us believing he was the best available player.”
Canadiens Trade Romanov, Get Dach
The aforementioned shock came in the form of center Shane Wright having arguably been considered the logical first pick. The Canadiens had obvious needs down the middle, as heading into the Draft center comprised Nick Suzuki and not much else in terms of depth. However, Hughes arguably addressed that need right afterward, rocking the Bell Centre with a couple of rapid-fire trades that ultimately saw them acquire Dach from the Chicago Blackhawks, but lose defenseman Alexander Romanov to the New York Islanders.
Adding to frenzy was how Wright slipped all the way to fourth overall (Seattle Kraken), with Hughes avoiding ever being labeled “the guy who didn’t pick Wright,” if he does eclipse Slafkovsky (and Dach), as there are now three. Maybe there was something they each knew behind the scenes, or it’s just one of those things. Regardless, according to Hughes, talks to acquire Dach went back several weeks. So, for what it’s worth, the Habs knew prior to taking Slafkovsky that things had been finalized to get Dach.
First, the Canadiens traded Romanov and a 2022 fourth-round pick to the Islanders, getting the 13th-overall pick in exchange. They then turned around and dealt the pick (and a 2022 third-rounder) to the Blackhawks for Dach.
Say what you want about Slafkovsky compared to Wright, but Hughes worked magic for all intents and purposes to technically get two top-three picks at the Draft, with Dach having gone at No. 3 back in 2019. It remains to be seen if Dach is indeed the center the Habs desperately need, as his development has admittedly stalled slightly, with an infamous wrist injury limiting him to 18 games in 2020-21.
Wright had been considered a safe pick, with a floor no lower than that of a second-line center. The upside is Dach is several years into his development, but the downside is that same supposed floor may not necessarily apply, considering Dach’s notoriously bad career faceoff rate (32.8% in 2021-22). Habs fans may have to settle for a top-six forward, which might turn into a misfire, considering the decision to draft Slafkovsky, who’s seen by many as NHL-ready, at least physically. They are obviously different players with their own games, but, if the idea is to get bigger and faster down the middle with Dach, who, like Slafkovsky is 6-foot-4, it’s hardly a guarantee at this juncture.
Canadiens Get Bigger with Slafkovsky, Dach
There’s also little denying the Canadiens had to give up Romanov to make all this happen, which is less than ideal. However, Romanov, despite winning the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy for this past season, arguably projects as being one of the odd men out on a stacked Habs’ left side on defense a few years from now. It currently consists of incumbent Joel Edmundson and prospect Jordan Harris, with names like Kaiden Guhle and Mattias Norlinder on the way.
“Definitely more palatable with what we have in our system,” said Hughes. “We felt we have a little bit more depth coming on the left side than we do on the right, than we do in the middle of the ice and that certainly made it easier.”
For the record, Hughes very much expressed an intent to play Dach down the middle despite the question marks. He did address concerns somewhat, saying the Habs did extensive research on the forward and they’re hopeful the Canadiens can continue to develop him into a “very special centerman.” Contrast that hope with the confidence (but not arrogance) he sees in Slafkovsky.
Slafkovsky said he was just himself meeting with the Canadiens, apparently winning them over in the process. According to Hughes, the entire staff became confident themselves in the pick and the Habs had been leaning towards Slafkovsky Wednesday morning and ultimately would have taken him one way or another Thursday evening first overall. Now, it’s time for the fans, with Slafkovsky having reportedly been met by boos upon arriving at the Draft.
“Maybe some of them didn’t like me, but I will do everything to play well for this team and they will actually maybe like me one day,” he said slightly tongue in cheek, seemingly winning over members of the media in the process too.
“One day” may be soon, with Hughes saying the plan right now is to bring him to North America next season. For his part, Mesar suggested “North America” might even mean “Montreal” for Slafkovsky.
“I think Juraj is the best prepared for the NHL right now, because he’s tall, strong, really good shot, good hockey sense,” he said. “I think he’s the best player of this draft and deserved first pick.”
There are of course no guarantees, that Slafkovsky even becomes the dominant power forward the Canadiens drafted in theory either. However, the impression is the Canadiens did their guy, even if fans didn’t theirs… at least not yet.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.