“From the Slovak national team…” Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes said in announcing the first pick of the 2022 NHL Upper Deck Draft at the Bell Center on Thursday.
Immediately there was a loud mix of gasps and cheers. Home fans knew that meant the Canadiens were picking forward Juraj Slafkovsky, not center Shane Wright, the most anticipated player.
Slafkovsky knew that too.
“I didn’t even hear my name,” he said. “I heard ‘Slovak’.”
He saw her face on the big screen and got goosebumps. Shortly after, he stepped out under the Stanley Cup banners and the retired numbers of the Canadiens to don the blue, white and red – to take the torch from failing hands, which suddenly returned to him to hold it high.
When asked if he was surprised, he said: “Shane was thrown No. 1 [for years], then yes, of course. I’m really happy for that.”
[RELATED: Complete coverage of 2022 Upper Deck NHL Draft]
This moment alone would have made this draft an unforgettable moment for Montreal. Hughes, less than seven months after being hired on Jan. 19, had another surprise in store, however.
The Canadians traded their 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 Dashwho was the third pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.
Montreal also selected forward Filip Mesar, another Slovak and friend of Slafkovsky, 26th overall.
Wright, ranked the No. 1 skater in North America by NHL Central Scouting, seemed like the popular pick going into the draft. Some booed Slafkovsky as he walked the red carpet on Thursday. At least one wore a Canadiens jersey “Wright No. 51” in the arena. At least three wore t-shirts that read “WRIGHT CHOICE” and the “C” in the Canadiens logo.
The Habs didn’t pick Wright, but they may have picked the right one.
“I just hope that [the fans] will love me too one day, and i will do anything [to show] that I am a good player and that I am making history with Montreal,” said Slafkovsky.
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 at the Beijing Olympics in 2022, despite being the youngest in the tournament at 17 at the time, scoring seven goals in seven games to help Slovakia win bronze.
Video: Montreal Canadiens Select No. 1 AG Juraj Slafkovsky
The 18-year-old impressed Hughes at the 2022 NHL Scouting Combine when Hughes asked him to leave 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 he’s a kid who not only has the mindset that we’re looking for, but we also assess where he is in his game, which he has in terms of natural abilities and where he could be if we helped him with that process.”
Hughes said the Canadiens were keen on taking Slafkovsky on Wednesday morning but wanted to meet him one more time. When they met him Thursday morning, owner Geoff Molson joined Hughes, executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton and others. Slafkovsky didn’t read too much into it.
“I didn’t know if Shane had met the owner as well, 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.”
Video: Slafkovsky on his No. 1 selection in the 2022 NHL Draft
Hughes said the Canadiens don’t want to let go of Romanov, a 22-year-old who averaged 20:24 in 79 games with 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 had 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists) in 152 games with the Blackhawks over three seasons, but he’s still down to 21. 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 hoping that with the Montreal Canadiens in that environment, we can bring him up and get him to a point where he’s a pretty special center player.”
The expectations will be high, the pressure intense. But if they reach their potential, they will be loved in Montreal.
Fans already started embracing Slafkovsky about 90 minutes after his selection, when he emerged from the draft floor through the stands and then sat down for a TV interview in full view of the crowd. People stood up and gave him a standing ovation, slapping him on the back, taking pictures. Finally, they serenaded him.
“Oh! Ole-ole-ole! Oh! Oh!
Slafkovsky seemed determined to rise to the occasion.
“First overall is something, and you have to prove it,” he said. “So yeah, I’m just going to think about getting better every second I live on this earth.”