The Montreal Canadiens had a tough decision with their first-overall pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. There was no clear cut number one, and though a general consensus existed among scouts in favour of Shane Wright, it was tenuous at best.
In the end, Kent Hughes stepped to the microphone and announced that Juraj Slafkovsky, the Slovak sensation, would be joining the Montreal Canadiens.
The initial reaction was one of disappointment, since a pressing need for the Habs was down the middle, and they passed on Shane Wright. But then, they went and traded pick 98 and Alexander Romanov for pick 13, and flipped that along with pick 66 to add Kirby Dach to the club. Having filled that centre need, adding the big talent on the wing made considerably more sense than it otherwise would.
Slafkovsky is almost universally considered to be the most NHL-ready player of this draft class. His size, shot, and skating are all at a professional level, and have been on display against men in the top Finnish professional league. The concern was whether his 10 points in 31 Liiga games was worthy of a first-overall pick.
His game is based largely on his ability to use his frame, which he still has space to grow into at 6’4” and 218 pounds. He has a very long reach, protects the puck well, and uses this very effectively in the cycle game. He does the bulk of his shooting work in the home plate area around the net, has slick hands, and a heavy wrist shot that can beat goaltenders from a distance as well.
With TPS in the Liiga, he was surrounded by players who just weren’t on his level, with usage that didn’t play to his strengths. When he stepped away from TPS and played with the Slovak national team at two different tournaments, he flourished. Playing on the top line for Slovakia with skilled linemates, he won MVP at the Olympics and was equally impressive at the World Championships.
You don’t want to put too much stock into two international tournaments when drafting, but those performances were hard to ignore. And the clear takeaway from those tournaments was that — given the right linemates — Slafkovsky had more to offer than his production in Finland. Of note was also his scoring rate in the U20 league in Finland, which was considerably higher, and well over a point-per-game.
He had 18 points in 11 games with the U20 TPS squad before earning his promotion to the Liiga. Adjusting to the new league was a challenge, but his performance gradually earned him more ice time, culminating in an average of over 15 minutes of playing time per game in the playoffs. He finished as the fifth best playoff scorer for TPS in the playoffs with seven points through 18 games.
TPS was heavily reliant on their top line of veterans (Nurmi, Pyyhtiä and Perssinen) through the playoffs. This left Slafkovsky on the outside looking in, but he still scored his seven points (2+5) despite being second fiddle. None of the veterans on the first line had less than 12 points.
This stood in stark contrast to Slafkovsky’s usage with the Slovak national team, where he was used on the top line, and on the power play, clearly benefiting from better linemates and better deployment. Slafkovsky’s game improved through the course of the season, having a positive trend with his game against Canada in the World Championships as his peak performance of the year.
He has not been shy with the media either, even going so far as to suggest he’d be a great winger for Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. This seems to be a logical, if not predestined landing spot for him, and should at least be seen during the preseason in Montreal.
Slafkovsky’s size, as well as his cycling and puck retrieval abilities, would make him a very interesting third musketeer on that top line. Josh Anderson had some success playing with those two, and at his best Slafkovsky projects as a more dynamic version of Anderson, so it could end up being a perfect fit.
The alternative would be to try him out with the newest member of the club, Kirby Dach. This would form a very difficult line to deal with given the size of those two players, their playmaking skills, and respective hockey IQs. It should suffice to say that Martin St-Louis has plenty of options in how he can use Slafkovsky.
Montreal is rebuilding, so he doesn’t need to be a top-line winger immediately. They can even afford to send him back to Finland for one more season if they feel that to be the best course of action. But he is show ready, so they can expect him to be a contributor as early as next season.
After being selected, John Lu asked him about some of the boos that were raining down, and he said: “Hockey is their passion, as well as mine. Maybe some of them didn’t like me but I will do everything I can to play good for this team and maybe one day they’ll like me.”
The Habs brass spoke ad nauseam of wanting to get the best player for the future, not the best player right now. With this pick, they have to be hoping that they got the best of both worlds, as he appears to have every intention of being in the Tricolore in 2022-23.