“From the Slovakian national team…” Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes said when he announced his No. 1 pick in the 2022 Upper Deck NHL Draft at the Bell Center on Thursday.
Immediately, a loud mix of gasps and cheers came. Fans knew this meant the Canadians were picking striker Juraj Slavkowski, not quarterback Shane Wright, the most anticipated player.
Slavkovsky knew that, too.
“I didn’t even hear my name,” he said. I heard ‘Slovak’.
He saw his face on the big screen and got goosebumps. Shortly thereafter, he emerges from under the Canadian Stanley Cup banners and retiree numbers to pull the torch out of the failed hands, and suddenly he is now holding it high.
Asked if he was surprised, he said, “Shin was first [for years], Yes, of course. I’m really happy for that.”
[RELATED: Complete coverage of 2022 Upper Deck NHL Draft]
That moment alone would make this draft memorable for Montreal. Hughes, less than seven months after his January 19 appointment, had another surprise in store.
Canadians traded defense man Alexander Romanov and the New York Islanders’ 98th pick for 13th pick, then overturned 13th pick and 66th pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for center Kirby Dashwho was the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.
Montreal also chose striker Filip Misar, another Slovakian and friend of Slavkovsky, in 26th place.
Wright, ranked No. 1 in North America on snowboard by NHL Central Scouting, appears to be the popular pick entering the draft. Some booed Slavkovsky as he walked the red carpet on Thursday. At least one Canadian Wright #51 jersey was worn in the ring. At least three of them wore “Right Choice” T-shirts with the letter “C” made from the Canadians crest.
The Canadians didn’t make Wright’s choice, but they may have made the right choice.
“I just hope so [the fans] He’ll love me too someday, and I’ll do everything [to show] “I’m a good player and I’m making some history with Montreal,” said Slavkowski.
Slafkovsky, ranked No. 1 in Europe by NHL Central Scouting, is 6-foot-4, 229 pounds forward. He was the most valuable player at the 2022 Beijing Olympics even though he was the youngest player in the tournament at 17 years old at the time, scoring seven goals in seven matches to help Slovakia win bronze.
Video: Montreal Canadiens pick LW Juraj Slafkovsky No. 1
The 18-year-old was impressed at the 2022 NHL Scouting Combine when Hughes asked him about leaving home at age 15 to play for Finland.
“I asked him if he lived in a condo,” Hughes said. ‘He said no.’ I said: If one of your parents moved with you? He said no.’ Then I said, “How do you cook?” And he said: With a stove.
“He’s very independent. He’s self-confident without being arrogant, and we think this is a kid who not only has the mindset we’re looking for, but we’re also evaluating his place in his game, what he has in terms of natural abilities and where he could be if we help him in the process.”
Hughes said the Canadians were tempted to take Slavkovsky on Wednesday morning but wanted to meet him again. When they met him Thursday morning, owner Jeff Molson was joined by Hughes, executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton and others. Slafkovksy did not read much in it.
“I didn’t know if Shin had met the owner as well, so I said, ‘Maybe he has. [a meeting with Molson] That doesn’t mean anything, said Slavkovsky, laughing too. “Yes, but in fact, it meant something.”
Video: Slafkovsky on his #1 pick in the 2022 NHL Draft
Hughes said the Canadians didn’t want to give up on Romanov, the 22-year-old who averaged 20:24 in their 79 games last season. But they wanted to get bigger and faster in the middle of the ice, and they added another 6-foot-4-inch player with potential.
Dash put in 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists) in 152 games for the Black Hawks over three seasons, but he’s still 21.
“We will invest money in the development of hockey players and try to make the most of their potential, and we think Kirby has great potential,” Hughes said. “And hopefully with the Montreal Canadiens in this environment, we can bring him up and bring him to a point where he’s a very special central man.”
Expectations will be high and the pressure is intense. But if they reach their potential, they will be loved in Montreal.
Fans actually started embracing Slafkovsky about 90 minutes after his pick, when he walked from the draft floor across the stands, then sat down for a TV interview in full view of the audience. People stood on their feet and clapped his back and took pictures. Finally, they sang it.
“Ole! Ole-Ole-Ole! Ole! Ole!”
Slavkovsky seemed determined to live up to that.
“First in general something, and you have to prove it,” he said. “So, yeah, I’ll just think about getting better every second I live on this earth.”
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