“From the Slovakian national team…” Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes said as he announced the No. 1 pick in the 2022 Upper Deck NHL Draft at Bell Center on Thursday.
Immediately, there came a loud mix of gasps and cheers. The home fans knew that meant the Canadiens were selecting forward Juraj Slafkovsky, not center Shane Wright, the player most expected.
Slafkovsky knew it too.
“I didn’t even hear my name,” he said. “I heard ‘Slovakian.'”
He saw his face on the big screen and got goose bumps. Soon afterward, he walked out underneath the Canadiens’ Stanley Cup banners and retired numbers to pull on the bleu, blanc et rouge – to take the torch from failing hands, suddenly now his to hold it high.
Asked if he was surprised, he said: “Shane was projected No. 1 [for years], so yeah, of course. I’m really happy for that. “
That moment alone would have made this draft one to remember for Montreal. Hughes, less than seven months after he was hired Jan. 19, had another surprise in store, though.
The Canadiens traded defenseman Alexander Romanov and the No. 98 pick to the New York Islanders for the No. 13 pick, then flipped the No. 13 pick and No. 66 pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for center Kirby Dach, who was the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.
Montreal also selected forward Filip Mesar, another Slovak and a friend of Slafkovsky’s, at No. 26.
Wright, ranked the No. 1 North American skater by NHL Central Scouting, seemed to be the popular pick entering the draft. Some booed Slafkovsky as he walked the red carpet Thursday. At least one wore a “Wright No. 51” Canadiens jersey in the arena. At least three wore T-shirts that said, “WRIGHT CHOICE,” with the “C” made of the Canadiens logo.
The Canadiens didn’t make the Wright choice, but maybe they made the right one.
“I just hope that [the fans] will like me also one day, and I will do everything [to show] that I’m a good player and that I actually make some 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 at 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 him about 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 with you?’ He said ‘no.’ Then I said, ‘How’d 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 not only that has the mindset that we’re looking for, but we also evaluate where he is in his game, what he has in terms of natural abilities and where he could be if we help him along in that process. “
Hughes said the Canadiens were leaning toward taking Slafkovsky on Wednesday morning but wanted to meet him once more. When they met with him Thursday morning, owner Geoff Molson joined Hughes, executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton and others. Slafkovksy didn’t read too much into it.
“I didn’t know if Shane had a meeting with owner also, so I was like,‘ Maybe he had [a meeting with Molson] also, and it means nothing, ‘”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 in the middle of the ice, and they added another 6-foot-4 player with potential.
Dach put up 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists) in 152 games for the Blackhawks over three seasons, but he’s still 21. He can grow with the Canadiens core.
“We’re going to invest money in developing hockey players and trying to get the most out of their potential, and we believe Kirby has significant potential,” Hughes said. “And we’re hopeful that with the Montreal Canadiens in this environment, we can bring him along and get him to a point where he’s a pretty special centerman.”
The expectations will be high, the pressure intense. But if they reach their potential, they will be beloved in Montreal.
The fans already began embracing Slafkovsky about 90 minutes after his selection, when he walked up from the draft floor through the stands, then sat down for a TV interview in full view of the crowd. People rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation, slapping his back, snapping pictures. Finally, they serenaded him.
“Thief! Thief! Thief! Thief!”
Slafkovsky seemed determined to live up to it.
“First overall is something, and you have to prove it,” he said. “So, yeah, I will just think of getting better every second I’m living on this earth.”