MONTREAL – The Canadiens selected winger Juraj Slafkovsky with the first pick in the NHL draft Thursday night at their home arena, making him the first player from Slovakia to be taken at No. 1 overall.
While Shane Wright, a Canadian center, was long considered the front-runner to be the top pick, the Devils surprisingly selected Simon Nemec, a Slovakian defenseman and Slafkovsky’s Olympic teammate, at No. 2 after Wright fell.
In another surprise, the Arizona Coyotes took Logan Cooley, a center from the Pittsburgh area, with the third pick before Wright’s slip stopped with the Seattle Kraken at No. 4. Wright said he’d have a chip on his shoulder and play with “ a little more fire ”after getting passed over by three teams.
Slafkovsky, who was named the most valuable player at the Beijing Olympics for leading the tournament with seven goals in seven games, started thinking he could be selected first overall after meeting the Canadiens at the NHL scouting combine in Buffalo in June.
“I felt they were pretty interested,” said Slafkovsky, who was caught off guard when Montreal General Manager Kent Hughes announced his name. “When I heard ‘from Slovakia’ I went, ‘Wow!’”
Slafkovsky and Nemec became the highest-drafted players from Slovakia 22 years after Marian Gaborik went third to the Minnesota Wild in 2000.
The Canadiens weren’t done making moves in their first time hosting the draft since 2009. They traded the 22-year-old defenseman Alexander Romanov and a 2022 fourth-round pick to the Islanders for the 13th pick. Then they moved that selection and the 66th pick to Chicago for forward Kirby Dach, 21, who had 26 points in 70 games last season.
It was the second roster-dismantling move made Thursday by transitioning Chicago, which also traded winger Alex DeBrincat to the Ottawa Senators for picks No. 7 and 39 this year and a third-rounder in 2024. DeBrincat, 24, matched his career high of 41 goals last season.
The 6-foot-4 Slafkovsky, who has drawn comparisons to the 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.
Slafkovsky, who turned 18 in March, was among the most NHL-ready players available: He played against grown men in Finland this past season and impressed at the Olympics. He was the youngest player in the tournament and the biggest reason Slovakia won bronze, its first Olympic men’s hockey medal.
He could soon play alongside the top Canadiens forwards Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, who both scored over 20 goals last season.
Flyers General Manager Chuck Fletcher, whose team picked forward Cutter Gauthier fifth, said Wednesday he expected a lot of trades at the draft. Other general managers did not wait for the draft to start to begin dealing.
The Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche got the transactions started by acquiring goaltender Alexandar Georgiev from the Rangers for a third- and a fifth-round pick in this draft and a third-rounder next year.
After the trade, Colorado didn’t need to worry too much about the draft itself, as it was left with only two picks – one each in the sixth and seventh round. Then Chicago sent DeBrincat to Ottawa.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman opened the first in-person draft since 2019 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 was also the first time the host team picked at No. 1 since the Toronto Maple Leafs selected Wendell Clark in 1985. With rival Montreal hosting, the Leafs got the loudest boos during a 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 on Wednesday in Montreal, where he was attending the draft as a scout for the San Jose Sharks.
Children of the Hall of Famers Guy Lafleur and Mike Bossy, who both died in April, also addressed the crowd.