Juraj Slafkovsky Shane Wright Montreal Canadiens NHL Draft 2022

Picking Slafkovsky over Wright and trading for Dach is a major gamble for the Habs

“At first glance, the new Habs brass bricked their first big test, making moves that were puzzling at best and Bergevin-esque at worst.”

Disclaimer: I genuinely hope everything I say in this op ed ages horrendously, and that it all works out in the end for this franchise. I will owe many people many beers in that case, and you will all have earned the right to dunk on me for years to come. I welcome any and all dissenting arguments in my mentions. In the meantime, I’ll entrust my faith in the new management group and welcome Juraj Slafkovsky to the Habs family, even if it wasn’t my preferred outcome.

The 2022 NHL Draft was the first big test for the new Habs brass. At first glance, they bricked it.

As soon as the pre-draft red carpet event began outside the Bell Centre before the first round took place on Thursday evening, the stage seemed set. The hometown team was seemingly on the precipice of anointing Shane Wright as our new 1C with franchise potential, despite a relatively disappointing season in the OHL — a league where he’d missed an entire season due to the pandemic forcing its cancellation in 2020–21.

Shane Wright NHL Draft 2022 Montreal Canadiens
Shane Wright outside the Bell Centre, July 7, 2022. Photo by Lorraine Carpenter

Despite plenty of noise in the days leading up to the draft (including at least one now-vindicated former Habs amateur scout, who invested disproportionate amounts of energy into bashing Wright for months on end), I still felt certain Shane Wright would end up a Montreal Canadien, and that selecting him first overall was merely a formality.

Having Nick Suzuki at the draft table — the partner to the presumed 1–2 punch at centre Wright was expected to help form — felt almost like tacit confirmation that the young Burlington, ON native would be donning a Canadiens sweater.

Wright, who had six meetings with the team prior to the draft and even got to chat with special advisor Vincent Lecavalier and head coach Martin St. Louis — both of whom have experience onboarding a first overall pick in Steven Stamkos — before draft day about handling the hype and pressure surrounding him. He also made no secret of how much he loved the city and the organization. Wright seemed to have his heart and mind set on wearing the bleu blanc et rouge for years to come.

Of course, it wasn’t to be.

Instead, new GM Kent Hughes, new VP of hockey ops Jeff Gorton and the rest of the Canadiens’ management team opted for Juraj Slafkovsky, a 6’4” power forward from Slovakia who was named MVP at the 2022 Beijing Olympics and also put up an excellent performance for his country at this year’s IIHF World Championships.

Juraj Slafkovsky NHL Draft 2022 Montreal Canadiens
Juraj Slafkovsky outside the Bell Centre, July 7, 2022. Photo by Cindy Lopez

If you followed my Twitter account last night, you’ll know that I reacted harshly and emotionally to the pick when it happened. Shane Wright was my guy from day one and my stance on that never wavered. It’s taken me a lot of time to process the fact that my ideal future for this franchise — one with him and Suzuki being the faces of our team at centre ice — would not come to pass.

Having had time to marinate on it, I don’t think it’s the massive mistake I initially considered it to be, but it’s still quite risky. It also feels a bit like a pick designed with the medium-term in mind rather than the long haul, as Slafkovsky has a pro-ready frame at 6’4” and 218 lbs (Wright’s is 6’1” and 187 lbs).

Slafkovsky has plenty of tantalizing upside, without a doubt. Combinations of size, skill, puckhandling, physicality and speed like his are as hard to find as Bigfoot in this league, and his game has been likened to those of Mikko Rantanen and a higher-scoring version of Valeri Nichushkin. He also stands out through his protection along the boards, puck possession and playmaking ability, all while boasting excellent hands and being an imposing figure on the ice.

But he remains a relative project compared with Wright, which isn’t what the average sports fan would hope for or expect from a first overall pick. The young Slovak isn’t without weaknesses, either: his footspeed still needs work, and his hockey IQ isn’t as extraordinary as Wright’s.

Three other possible criticisms come to mind: 1) he put up underwhelming numbers in the Finnish SM-Liiga against men, 2) his high point totals in international play came against lower-ranked countries like Kazakhstan and Italy, and 3) he was a late riser up the draft boards much like Jesperi Kotkaniemi was four years ago, and Wright remained the consensus first overall pick up until Bob McKenzie’s final rankings were released.

Juraj Slafkovsky Sign NHL Draft 2022 Montreal Canadiens
NHL Draft 2022 viewing party at the Bell Centre. Photo by Cindy Lopez

Having watched the selection happen at Place des Canadiens just outside the Bell Centre, many fans — save for that one dude with the Slafkovsky banner — appeared to react with shock and exasperation at the pick. Clearly, many people there wanted Wright, and I even saw people wearing custom Wright jerseys in the plaza.

(Side note: some of those people even booed Slafkovsky during the red carpet. I fully and emphatically condemn this type of behaviour, as he’s ultimately still just an 18-year-old realizing his childhood dream. I also am not fond of Habs fans on Twitter calling him “Slafbustky” before the pick was made.)

Then, commissioner Gary Bettman announced two trades involving the hometown team, all while Wright was still on the board when the Seattle Kraken were on the clock with the fourth overall pick.

Some people at the Bell Centre surely thought we were about to acquire that pick. Instead, we traded Alexander Romanov — the feisty, extremely likeable young Russian blueliner who was poised to be a long-term mainstay in our top four, and considered untouchable by many fans including myself — to the New York Islanders for the 13th overall pick, which was promptly shipped alongside the 66th pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for Kirby Dach. 

Alexander Romanov Montreal Canadiens Habs traded trade
Alexander Romanov (centre)

It’s hard not to feel somewhat perplexed about acquiring Dach, the third overall pick in the 2019 draft. Like Slafkovsky, he’s not exactly an analytics darling, which flies in the face of Gorton’s publicly-stated emphasis on analytics. In that respect, these moves felt puzzling at best and Bergevin-esque at worst.

If this trade suggests anything, it’s that Gorton and Hughes have placed an immense amount of faith into St. Louis, his coaching staff and their development team as a whole. Based on numbers and optics alone, Dach appears like a reclamation project of sorts, having failed to set the league alight thus far after three years in Chicago. His finishing ability is also a concern.

Kirby Dach Montreal Canadiens Habs
Kirby Dach

Yes, Dach was on pace for a 46-point season in 2020–21 before suffering a season-ending wrist injury (one that forced him out of the 2021 World Juniors, where he’d been named captain for Team Canada). But Habs brass are essentially banking on the hope that he can tap into his potential that got him drafted so high, and that St. Louis is the man to unlock it. It will be very intriguing to see if it can happen.

Wright would finally get picked by the league’s newest franchise at the fourth spot (New Jersey took defenceman Simon Nemec second, while Arizona opted for a flashier centre in Logan Cooley at third). As he walked onstage, Wright appeared to shoot a nasty death glare at the Habs’ draft table, which he confirmed during a radio interview with Seattle’s 93.3 KJR sports radio station this morning.

Shane Wright stares down the Habs table

(Another side note: A LOT of people owe Corey Pronman of The Athletic a cold one after correctly predicting Wright would fall to fourth.) 

This could mean one of two things: either Wright has an attitude and ego problem that the Habs, Devils and Coyotes considered off-putting, or that the Habs passing on him is a sign that he’s out for blood and determined to prove Hughes and co wrong. Montreal’s game against the Kraken at the Bell Centre on January 9 will definitely be one to watch, if only to see if we’ve indeed awoken a beast.

And honestly, it’s hard to blame him for his pettiness. Wright had been earmarked as the top pick in this year’s draft since he was 15 years of age and had been granted exceptional status upon entering the OHL — dominating his competition in almost every season since. All of that can easily get into your head and cause you to believe your own hype. The meetings the Canadiens had with him up to yesterday probably made him feel as if it was a foregone conclusion, too.

I’d feel pretty salty and betrayed if I were in his shoes, too, even if it’s an immature way of handling the situation and could be a sign of a me-first mentality. It’s a bit like a toxic ex leading you on before they unexpectedly dump you, or like dangling a chocolate bar in front of a small child, only to take it away from them at the last second.

Yes, Wright’s death glare wasn’t a great look and likely a sign of entitlement and hubris. Kent Hughes even went so far as to seemingly fire shots at his character during his press conference. Also, if Wright was the one who chose “Don’t Stop Believin’” as his walk-up song (a tune I despise with every fibre of my being), this also helps soften the blow.

But it’s now on Wright to back it all up — after all, some of the greatest athletes of all time have Jupiter-sized egos. Hell, even Wayne Gretzky phoned Wright during the draft to make sure he was doing okay despite his disappointment. Either way, Seattle have secured themselves one hell of a duo down the middle between Wright and last year’s second overall pick, Matty Beniers.

Since this is Montreal and we can’t leave well enough alone with our hockey team, people will be debating these decisions for years to come — drafting Doug Wickenheiser over Denis Savard; Kotkaniemi over Filip Zadina, Quinn Hughes and Brady Tkachuk and trading P.K. Subban for Shea Weber come to mind.

I still believe Juraj Slafkovsky has what it takes to be an impact player in the NHL as he continues to develop, mature and get used to the league’s pace, especially as management wants him to play in North America next season. But for me, Shane Wright still boasts the highest ceiling of any player in this draft class, even if his status as the top pick became less of a slam dunk over time. There are questions about his compete level, yes, but he’s known for being a very methodical player rather than a flashy one, which could be misconstrued by some as him lacking effort.

Beyond Suzuki, we also continue to lack elite young centres in our system (a long-standing problem for this franchise), and we’ll have to have another poor season to possibly draft one of next year’s crop of high-end pivots such as Adam Fantilli, Dalibor Dvorsky and the golden goose, Connor Bedard. Until or unless that happens, it’s difficult not to feel like this was a missed opportunity during such a pivotal draft for the Canadiens.

Of course, we’ll only know how things play out with time—Slafkovsky will surely make a nice foil to Suzuki and Cole Caufield, should he be their lineman. But the work has now officially begun to make sure he reaches his high ceiling, and that he’s doing so in the right environment and with the best people surrounding him.

Fans should trust the process from here on out, as it’s obviously far too early to evaluate these decisions properly. In the meantime, the jury is still out. Drafting Slafkovsky and acquiring Dach are both ballsy moves on paper — and in this market, the fans won’t be forgiving if they backfire. Here’s hoping it was a masterstroke. ■

For more on the Montreal Canadiens’s moves during the 2022 NHL Draft, please click here.

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