Canadiens shock hockey world, taking Juraj Slafkovsky first overall

MONTREAL—If the crowd reaction means anything, the choice by the Montreal Canadiens to take Slovakian forward Juraj Slafkovský with the first overall pick was overwhelmingly welcomed.

It ended months of speculation — Who would they take? Would they trade the pick? — leading up to the first in-person NHL draft in three years.

The crowd at the Bell Centre was in a partying mood, cheering everything Hab related with an “Olé, Olé” chant when new coach Martin St-Louis was introduced.

“Took me 47 years to be at my first draft. It was worth the wait,” joked St-Louis, a Hall of Famer as a player but never drafted.

The crowd changed “Sixty-Seven” after giving a round of boos to the introduction of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It chanted “Guy, Guy” and “Bossy, Bossy” during speeches honouring late players Guy Lafleur and Mike Bossy. But best was an elongated and loud round of boos for commissioner Gary Bettman.

“Thank you for that welcome. A return to normalcy,” said Bettman.

But it was the draft that mattered. The second half of Slafkovský’s season — playing against men, doing well in the Olympics — leapfrogged him over Burlington’s Shane Wright, a promising centre from the Kingston Frontenacs.

Wright had generally been believed to be the top prospect in this draft, a slot many believed he was fated for since he was 15, accepted into the OHL as an under-ager having been granted exceptional status. But he didn’t play at 17 due to COVID and had an underwhelming start to the 2021-22 campaign. His stock shockingly dropped to fourth, with Wright going to the Seattle Kraken.

It was Šimon Nemec, a defenceman from HK Nitra of the Slovak Extraliga, who went second to the New Jersey Devils. Slovaks going first and second was a historic moment for that country’s hockey program.

Then the Arizona Coyotes took Logan Cooley, a centre with the U.S. National Development Program, with the third overall pick.

The Montreal Canadiens took Slovakian forward Juraj Slafkovský with the first overall pick.

The draft had a level of intrigue at the top, in part, because there was no consensus No. 1 overall pick, but also because the draft was in Montreal, the Canadiens held the top pick, and it was the team’s new general manager, Kent Hughes, overseeing his first draft and they had an NHL record 15 picks over the two days.

This is nothing new for Montreal. The Canadiens amassed 60 picks — more than any other team — from 2017 to 2022. But the previous regime headed by Marc Bergevin have relatively little to show from it over the 45 picks over the four previous drafts. Cole Caufield is probably the best of the bunch. Jesperi Kotkaniemi was allowed to leave as a restricted free agent. Others, like Ryan Poehling, have been slow to develop. Last year, Bergevin used the team’s first round pick to take Logan Mailloux, a highly regarded defenceman from the London Knights, but one who came with a ton of baggage that included a sex scandal from an incident in Sweden.

Ironically, part of Bergevin’s underwhelming legacy punctuated by reactionary moves may be saved by Hughes’ vision with Montreal beefing up the player development side.

The first day of the draft had its share of trades and other moves, with Hughes at the top of the list, landing forward Kirby Dach from the Chicago Blackhawks after a series of draft pick transactions involving the Islanders and Chicago.

The Ottawa Senators got better in acquiring sniper Alex DeBrincat from the Blackhawks for three draft picks, including the seventh overall pic. Chicago also added picks 13 and 16 as a result of the Dach trade.

The Minnesota Wild came to terms on a two-year, $7-million (U.S.) deal for goalie Marc-André Fleury that removes one goaltending target before free agency opens up next week.

The Pittsburgh Penguins came to terms on a six-year, $36.6-million deal with defenceman Kris Letang. That leaves Evgeni Malkin as perhaps the biggest name heading to unrestricted free agency.

Bettman dealt with some of the game’s more serious issues just hours before the draft started, talking both about the issues involving Russian hockey players, and the state of the league’s investigation into an alleged sex assault by eight Canadian hockey players on a woman at a Hockey Canada event in 2018.

That investigation hasn’t gone very far yet.

“We’re going to try and do as thorough an investigation as possible to see if we can learn more than obviously Hockey Canada was able to make us aware of either because they didn’t have the information or there were some limitations,” said Bettman. “But our goal is to get to the bottom of this and get a full understanding of what actually happened by whom.”

The issue of Russians being detained over in Russia in disputes over military service is also a concert for the league.

“We probably don’t have the full story as to what’s going on in terms of what each player’s relationship is in Russia with respect to the government, and we’re going to have to respect the process as to what goes on,” said Bettman. “I think it’s probably not a good idea for us or the clubs to get involved in the politics of what’s going on in Russia, and players need to make sure that they’re comfortable with what they’re doing and where they’re doing it.

“I don’t want to say anything that could be misconstrued or cause an inflammation of a sensitive situation. The Russia players who still reside in Russia need to make sure that they’re making the best possible decisions for themselves and their families.”

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By Jon Doe