Montreal Hosts an Exciting NHL Amateur Draft

Juraj Slavkovsky arriving at the draft on Thursday, July 7. – © Lori Bennett / Wreckhouse Press Inc.

The 2022 NHL Amateur Draft is past, and the level of drama was fitting for the greatest hockey city in the world. Montreal hosted, and the hockey gods arranged for the first overall pick to fall into the laps of the Montreal Canadiens. That outcome did not come without some grief – the Habs finished in last place in the NHL this year. The city was abuzz as draft day approached and with the fan base dying to gain from that pain.

On Wednesday, July 6, the Ottawa Senators turned the drama up a notch when they traded the seventh overall pick, a second-round pick this year, and a third-round pick in 2024 to the Chicago Blackhawks for Alex DeBrincat. Ottawa is flush with young players and prospects and was looking for a proven goal scorer, which they found in DeBrincat. As a result, the Sens did not pick in the first round of the draft, and yet they had gotten off to a brilliant start.

Fans packed into the Bell Centre on Thursday evening with the Canadiens’ plan for first overall still a mystery. The anticipation was palpable as GM Kent Hughes took the microphone with many fans expecting the Habs to select centre Shane Wright, who was touted as the best player in the draft until recent months. A shocked hush fell over the arena when Hughes called the name – Juraj Slavkovsky – the big, goal-scoring winger whose stock has risen recently due to his play on the international stage. The crowd quickly adjusted and broke into applause and cheered for the young man.

The New Jersey Devils selected Slovakian defenceman Simon Nemec at number two, followed by Arizona who selected American centre Logan Cooley a third overall. Wright was finally selected at fourth by the Seattle Kraken. On his walk across the stage, Wright paused for a long look at the Canadiens table, and one wonders if his drop in the draft order will motivate him going forward, with the Habs as a specific target.

Kent Hughes was not done after selecting Slafkovsky. Rumours had circulated that the Habs wanted to make a splash in their home rink. Whoever discovered that story was not shopping in the fiction aisle. Make a splash, they did. The New York Islanders had owned the 13th pick, but between the 3rd and 4th pick Commissioner Gary Bettman took the mic and uttered the sentence draft fans love to hear. “We have a trade to announce.” Fans were anticipating a trade to select Wright, and were on the edge of their seats. Montreal traded defenceman Alexander Romanov and a fourth-round pick to the Islanders for the 13th pick, and then flipped it along with a third-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for centreman Kirby Dach. It wasn’t Wright, but it was a top-tier young centreman.

Shane Wright mingles with fans at the 2022 NHL Draft. – © Lori Bennett / Wreckhouse Press Inc.

Once again, the Bell crowd was torn. A fan sitting in front of me, wearing a Romanov-signed hat along with the player’s jersey, sat slack-jawed and speechless. Romanov had become a fan favourite with his contagious smile and booming open-ice hits. The Habs have considerable depth at left-side defence and moving Romanov, a deal that was in place before the draft began, allowed them to fill a hole at centre and still select the big goal-scorer they coveted.

The next Canadian team to pick was the Winnipeg Jets who selected Rutger McGroarty, an American winger. The Vancouver Canucks selected Jonathan Lekkerimaki from Sweden at 15.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were slated to take the stage at number 25, but instead it was Bettman with another trade to announce. The pick went to Chicago, along with slumping goaltender Petr Mrazek in exchange for a second-round pick. One might be tempted to be impressed with GM Kyle Dubas’ move to dump that bad contract if he hadn’t signed it in the first place. Nonetheless, the move freed up some cap space for Dubas to deal with other needs, and the Leafs have had some success finding gems in the second round.

The Montreal Canadiens took the stage again at 26, a pick they had obtained from Calgary in the Tyler Toffoli trade. They selected playmaking winger Filip Mesar, a fellow countryman and childhood friend of Slafkovsky. The Flames did not have a first-round pick.

The Winnipeg Jets selected again at number 30, and selected Finnish centre Brad Lambert, who was expected to go much higher in the draft. The Jets had a strong first round.

The Edmonton Oilers were scheduled to pick at 29, but traded the pick to the Arizona Coyotes along with a third-round pick in 2024, a second-round pick in 2025 and Zack Kassian for the 32nd overall pick. Moving out the bloated contract was necessary for the cap-strapped Oilers to do some necessary business – perhaps they can find a goalie with the newly found cash. With the new pick they selected big forward Reid Schaefer who hails from Spruce Grove, a suburb of Edmonton. There is something special about watching a prospect hear his name called by his home team.

Day 2 featured less fireworks, unless you count the need to resuscitate landlines at draft tables when Rogers lost service for the day. There were a couple of noteworthy moments. The Vancouver Canucks drafted a prospect named Elias Pettersson, when they already have a star player on the roster by that name. The Canucks table could be seen chuckling after making the pick. A heartwarming moment occurred when Jack Hughes, the son of Montreal GM Kent Hughes, was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings. The pair shared a proud moment on the draft floor. Otherwise, there was some swapping of picks, and some perceived steals. Time will determine the winners and losers.

The Montreal Canadiens preparing to kick off Day 2 of the NHL Entry Draft on Friday, July 8. – © Lori Bennett / Wreckhouse Press Inc.

There were a couple of trades to spice things up. The Detroit Red Wings obtained the rights to goalie Ville Husso from St. Louis for a third-round pick, and then quickly signed a deal with his new team. Another goalie changed addresses when the Washington Capitals traded Vitek Vanecek to the New Jersey Devils for picks. The Carolina Hurricanes traded the rights to defenceman Tony DeAngelo to the Philadelphia Flyers for draft picks, and the Flyers quickly re-signed him. The San Jose Sharks acquired forward Luke Kunin from the Nashville Predators.

The Edmonton Oilers got a break when Duncan Keith announced his retirement, freeing up cap space for GM Ken Holland. The Chicago Blackhawks will be hit with a cap recapture penalty as a result of the retirement, having signed Keith to the current contract. The Wild re-signed goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and Cam Talbot wants out of Minnesota. He signed with the Wild expecting to be the starter. The Leafs are reported to be interested in Talbot.

Rumours continue to swirl in the air in Montreal as the prospects wind down from the draft with their families, walking the streets in their new team’s jersey and hat. Teams are expressing interest in Habs goalie Jake Allen, and he may be on the move in the days ahead, but it will take a solid offer with the uncertainty surrounding Carey Price. The Sens are trying to move disgruntled goaltender Matt Murray, but the takers are not exactly lining up on the Montreal parade route. The Blackhawks and Patrick Kane are expected to meet in the coming days to consider his future in Chicago.

As the draft window closes, there will be little time to breathe since the free agency window is starting to crack open. Don’t blink too long – you might miss something big.

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