Canadiens select Slafkovsky with the No. 1 pick at the NHL draft

Juraj Slafkovsky was just as shocked as the Bell Centre crowd.

And Shane Wright had to wait a lot longer than expected to hear his name called.

The Montreal Canadiens hosted the first round of the 2022 NHL draft Thursday.

They made sure there was plenty of intrigue.

The Original Six franchise selected Slafkovsky with the No. 1 pick, while Wright — long viewed as the presumptive top selection — fell to fourth overall.

Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes announced the first pick, but was drowned out by the electric crowd response that included both cheers and jeers.

“It was a really big surprise for me,” said the 18-year-old Slafkovsky, who has a big frame and a big personality. “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.”

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Not everyone in attendance was happy with the selection at the league’s first in-person draft since 2019 after the last two were held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A handful of Canadiens fans sported Wright jerseys with his No. 51 on the back, while Slafkovsky was booed on the red carpet outside the rink before entering the building on his big night.

“Hockey is their passion as well as mine,” said the six-foot-four, 229-pound winger, who later waded into the stands and high-fived fans to raucous support. “Maybe some of them didn’t like me.

“But I will do everything that I can (to) play good for this team and they will actually maybe like me one day.”

The top-ranked European skater by NHL Central Scouting starred for his country at both the Beijing Olympics and world championships.

“We were leaning toward Slafkovsky, I would say, sometime Wednesday morning, mid-morning,” Hughes said following the first round. “We wanted to meet him, but we’d had so much debate and evaluation, discussion among the group.

“When we talk about his character, his desire to be a difference-maker, you see it. You see it in the way he plays, you see it when you speak to him.

“He’s a very charismatic kid.”

Minutes after picking Slafkovsky first overall, the Canadiens were right back at work and adding more to the evening’s drama.

The first team to host the draft and pick first since the Toronto Maple Leafs grabbed Wendel Clark in 1985, Montreal acquired the 13th selection from the New York Islanders for defenceman Alexander Romanov and the 98th pick.

The Canadiens then packaged that selection with the first pick of round three (66th overall) and sent them to Chicago for centre Kirby Dach.

In the process of dismantling their roster for a rebuild, the Blackhawks also traded star forward Alex DeBrincat to the Ottawa Senators for three picks earlier in the day, including Friday’s seventh overall selection.

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The New Jersey Devils followed the Slafkovsky stunner and took defenceman Simon Nemec second overall.

“Amazing moment for my family, for me,” said the defenceman, who along with Slafkovsky are the highest drafted Slovaks in NHL history.

“Amazing night.”

The Arizona Coyotes then took American centre Logan Cooley of the U.S National Development Program at No. 3.

NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American skater heading into Thursday, Wright finally had his name called when the Seattle Kraken stepped to the microphone to make the centre the draft’s fourth selection.

“Definitely going to have a little chip on my shoulder,” said the captain of the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs. “I’ve always been self-motivated, always been pushing myself internally.

“But it’s definitely gonna give me a little more fire.”

League business got going earlier in the day when the Colorado Avalanche acquired goaltender Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers for three picks.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, meanwhile, announced a six-year, US$36.6-million contact extension with defenceman Kris Letang, while the Minnesota Wild signed goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to a two-year, $7-million deal.

The Winnipeg Jets grabbed U.S National Team Development Program winger Rutger McGroarty with the 14th pick before the Vancouver Canucks chose Swedish blue-liner Jonathan Lekkerimaki one slot later. The Jets also selected Finnish defencemam Brad Lambert at No. 30.

The Leafs, looking to clear room on the salary cap, traded the 25th pick and under-performing goaltender Petr Mrazek to Chicago for the 38th pick.

The Canadiens took Slovak winger Filip Mesar at No. 26 with their second selection of the first round.

The Edmonton Oilers dealt the 29th pick, two future selections and bruising forward Zack Kassian to the Arizona Coyotes in another salary dump.

Edmonton acquired the No. 32 pick in the deal and shed Kassian’s $3.5-million ticket. The Oilers then chose Reid Schaefer of the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds.

The Senators didn’t have a pick Thursday following the DeBrincat trade, while the Calgary Flames were also on the sidelines.

The draft resumes Friday with rounds two through seven.

Thursday evening started with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman getting roundly booed by the crowd.

He didn’t mind one bit.

“Thank you for that welcome,” he said. “It’s a return to normalcy.”

© 2022 The Canadian Press

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