Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes said that the team had decided on Slovakian forward Juraj Slafkovsky on Wednesday, but even despite the meeting with the team on Thursday, Slafkovsky was surprised.
“We had meetings but you don’t get to know anything from the meetings. I still can guess but I was waiting for this... But now it’s reality,” he said.
Slafkovsky’s red carpet moment was met with some boos from the fans outside the Bell Centre, but the newest Canadien took it in stride.
“Hockey is their passion as well as mine,” he said. “Maybe some of them didn’t like me but I will do everything that I can do to play well for this team and they will actually maybe like me one day.”
For Hughes, there was a lot to like in the player he made the first overall pick.
“Juraj is a player who wants to make a difference. I asked him today, what do you like the most about hockey and he said being on the ice at 4-3, whether we’re winning 4-3 or losing 4-3 and that type of answer is what we saw of him as a player,” he said.
“When we talk about his desire to be a difference maker you see it in the way he plays and when you speak to him,” Hughes continued. “He’s a very charismatic kid. He left home at 15. I asked him if he lived in a dorm and he said no. So I asked him if one of his parents moved with him and he said no. So I asked him how he cooked and he said ‘with a stove’.
He’s very independent. He’s confident without being arrogant. This is a kid that not only has the mindset we’re looking for but also we evaluate where he is in his game, what he has in terms of natural ability and where he could be if we help him along in that process,” Hughes said.
“I don’t think I even heard my name being called. I heard ‘Slovakia’ and I was shocked and I didn’t listen anymore,” Slafkovsky said. “I was shaking and I had goosebumps. An unbelievable moment for me. I know it’s just the first step and just the beginning of my career. I can’t wait to go back to work and play for Montreal.”
With their second first-round pick, the Canadiens selected Filip Mesar, who happens to be best friends with Slafkovsky, making the moment even more special.
“With Juraj, to go to Montreal together it will be easier to adapt for me and he’s a really good friend. Everything is good,” Mesar said. “We know each other since we are kids. We are really good friends. We were on vacation together this year. It’s amazing to share a stage with him. It feels amazing. I don’t have any words. We three, Simon [Nemec] and Juraj, we are best friends, we know each other very well.”
“Out of five million people at least four are up and cheering for us,” Slafkovsky said about him and Simon Nemec being the first two picks. “At the end of the day, that’s important. We are from Slovakia. We represent the country and I’m happy for us.”
“It’s a crazy night for Slovakia,” Mesar said.
Mesar had several Zoom meetings with Montreal throughout the season and had a 30 minute meeting with them at the NHL Combine.
“I am a very creative player,” Mesar said. “Good skill, good skating, fast player. I need to improve my physicality and a bit in the defensive zone. I can do my best on the power play and make creative plays.”
“We knew a little from speaking with people from the Slovakian national team and speaking with the boys,” Hughes said about the relationship between the Slovak players. “You can see that with all of them, Nemec too. They’re a very talented group of players. It didn’t have any impact on drafting Filip, we felt he was the best available player. It’s a bonus that they know each other.”
Mesar says that he wants to play in North America next season, and the team expects Slafkovsky to come to North America as well. Hughes said that with Mesar, they haven’t had those discussions yet as at 26th overall, you don’t necessarily know who you are getting like you are with the first pick.
“We’d like him in North America,” Hughes said about Slafkovsky. “We’ll be fluid and flexible. If he shows he’s ready to play in Montreal, he’ll play in Montreal. If not he’ll start in Laval. We had our development group and Adam Nicholas in addition to our scouts to see how we want to evolve his game.”
The biggest move of the night may have been trading Alexander Romanov and two draft picks for 2019 third overall pick Kirby Dach.
“We were looking to get a little faster and bigger down the middle of the ice,” Hughes said. “There was also an age component so he could grow with our young core and certainly he fit that description for us. We knew that he was available potentially and so we spent a good amount of time to understand who Kirby Dach was. What’s happened with Kirby Dach, why does Chicago want to move him? We spoke to a lot of people in around Chicago, associated with the team even to the extent of speaking to Justin Barron today who was with him at the World Juniors and just make sure that we understood who the player was, who the person was, and we’re going to spend a lot of money to develop hockey players and get the most out of their potential and we believe Kirby has significant potential and we’re hopeful with the Montreal Canadiens in this environment that we can bring him along and get him to a point where he’s a special centre.”
Hughes also said that it was tough to trade Alexander Romanov, but it was “palatable” based on who else they have in their system, especially with Kaiden Guhle and Arber Xhekaj turning professional.
“It was hard. Very hard. We were talking with Chicago about Kirby Dach for about two or three weeks. It was clear that they wanted draft picks. We did everything we could do use the picks we had since we had a lot, but we weren’t able to convince them to make the trade with those picks. Romanov was one of the players that was coveted. We’re not sad, but we’re disappointed to lose Romy and we wish him luck with the Islanders.”
The Canadiens general manager also pushed back a little when faced with Dach’s challenges in the NHL to date.
“I wouldn’t say that he didn’t succeed in Chicago. He’s born in 2001 like Cole Caufield. Drafted the same year. He’s already been in the NHL three years. If you looked at Cole Caufield in January you would have said at that point he wasn’t succeeding at least in the NHL. You never know if someone is going to succeed until they do it but we believe in Kirby Dach.”
Hughes, between the acquisition of Dach, and the drafting of Slafkovsky mentioned size often. He said the focus will still be on speed and skill, but size does play a factor.
“There’s an element of size to the game of hockey. Especially the playoffs versus the regular season. There’s not a 5’9” player that scares me but 22 of them would scare me,” he said. “This opens us up to add more smaller players with them around. I don’t think you’ll see a line of Sean Farrell, Filip Mesar, and Cole Caufield.”