Canadiens take Juraj Slafkovsky with top pick in NHL draft

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FILE - Slovakia's Juraj Slafkovsky scores an empty net goal against Sweden during the men's bronze medal hockey game at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, in Beijing. There is legitimate uncertainty about who the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft will be for the first time in almost a decade. The Montreal Canadiens have been considering Canadian center Shane Wright, Slovak winger Juraj Slafkovsky and American center Logan Cooley. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

MONTREAL, QUE – Juraj Slafkovsky waited and wondered if the Montreal Canadiens would take him with the first pick in the NHL draft.

When the moment came, he didn’t even hear general manager Kent Hughes call his name. Shock overwhelmed the big, charismatic winger as soon as he heard Hughes say, “From the Slovakian national team.

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“I didn’t even listen anymore,” he said. “I was like shaking and I had goosebumps.”

Months after leading Slovakia to its first Olympic gold medal and being named tournament MVP, Slafkovsky made more history by becoming the first player from the country to be taken No. 1. Minutes later, countryman and Beijing Games teammate Simon Nemec went second to the New Jersey Devils.

Slafkovsky and Nemec became the highest-drafted players from Slovakia, 22 years after Marian Gaborik went third to Minnesota in 2000.

“I lost the words,” Nemec said. “We were kids when we dream about NHL draft.”

Nemec was all smiles later when he and Slafkovsky embraced Filip Mesar, the third Slovak taken in the first round, also by Montreal at No. 27. It's the first time Slovakia has had three players taken in the the first round, which also matched a record with 16 prospects born outside of North America being selected.

The crowd at Bell Centre was fired up for the league’s first in-person draft since 2019, booing Commissioner Gary Bettman each time he stepped up to the microphone — until he said he had a trade to announce. There were some oohs and ahhs when Shane Wright, long projected to be the top pick in this draft even before the Canadiens won the draft lottery, was not taken in the top three.

The Arizona Coyotes made forward Logan Cooley the highest-drafted player from Pittsburgh when they took him third. Wright’s fall, reminiscent of Seth Jones in 2013 — the last draft with this level of uncertainty about the top pick — ended when the Seattle Kraken took him fourth.

Wright said he’d have a chip on his shoulder and play with “a little more fire” after getting passed over by three teams at the top of the draft.

The Canadiens kept everyone guessing in saying they were considering Slafkovsky, Wright and Cooley before the draft. And after answering that question by choosing the 6-foot-4 winger, Montreal made another splash by completing a trade.

The Canadiens traded defenseman Alexander Romanov to the New York Islanders for the 13th pick and moved that selection and the 66th to the Chicago Blackhawks for young forward Kirby Dach.

It was the second dismantling move made Thursday by the Blackhawks, who also traded high-scoring winger Alex DeBrincat to the Ottawa Senators for three picks.

Slafkovsky, who has drawn comparisons to late Hockey Hall of Famer Clark Gillies and plays a bit like a young Jaromir Jagr, said he told the Canadiens on Thursday morning to take him. Confident as that sounded, Slafkovsky acknowledged he didn’t expect it to actually happen.

“It was a really big surprise for me,” Slafkovsky said. “We had meetings but we don’t get to know almost anything from that meeting. I still could just guess when I was waiting for this. But now it’s reality.”

Slafkovsky, who turned 18 in March, is among the most NHL-ready players in the draft after playing against grown men in Finland this past season and impressing at the Olympics with seven goals in seven games. The youngest player in the tournament was the biggest reason Slovakia won an Olympic bronze medal for the first time.

Chuck Fletcher, whose Philadelphia Flyers picked forward Cutter Gauthier fifth, said Wednesday he expected a lot of trades at the draft. Other GMs around the league didn’t want for the draft to begin to start dealing.

The Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche got things started by acquiring goaltender Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers for a third- and a fifth-round pick in this draft and a third-rounder next year. Then Chicago sent DeBrincat to Ottawa for the seventh and 39th picks and a third-rounder in 2024.

Bettman opened the draft in French by saying, “Bon soir, Montreal.” When fans booed him as is tradition, he said: “Thank you for that welcome. It is a return to normalcy.”

It’s also the first time the host team picked first since the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1985 when they got Wendell Clark. The Leafs got the loudest boos during roll call, with some in the crowd chanting, “’67!” in reference to the last year Toronto won the Stanley Cup.

Recent deaths in hockey were also recognized before the Canadiens went on the clock. Bettman asked those on the draft floor and in the stands to hold a moment of silence for retired defenseman Bryan Marchment, who died at age 53 Wednesday in Montreal where he was attending the draft as a scout for the San Jose Sharks.

Children of late Hall of Famers Guy Lafleur and Mike Bossy also addressed the crowd, along with Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis, who was serenaded by chants of “Ole! Ole! Ole!” Famously undrafted before having a Hall of Fame career, St. Louis joked: “It took me 45 years to finally be at my first draft. It was worth the wait.”

The opposite pressure now belongs to Slafkovsky, who could soon play alongside top Montreal forwards Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. That could be the plan for Hughes and St. Louis, who did their homework on Slafkovsky before picking him.

“They knew me pretty well,” he said. “They knew almost everything, how I play, what I do where on the ice, so I think it’s a really good organization and the important thing is they know what they want and I know what I want. It’s just good for me that they picked me.”

Rounds 2-7 are Friday.


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