Will Canadiens draft and trade gambles pay off?
Say this for the current Montreal Canadiens front office: They are not afraid to be bold with little regard to what the outside hockey world might think of their moves.
When it came time to make a head coaching change during the 2021-22 season they went with Hall of Fame player Martin St. Louis, even though he had no major coaching experience of any kind and had no prior connection to the Canadiens. In a league that recycles the same 30-or-so people for top positions, it was definitely a surprising hire.
Their bold moves continued this week at the NHL draft with the selection of Slovakian winger Juraj Slafkovský with the No. 1 overall pick, and the three-team trade that saw them send out defenseman Alexander Romanov and bring in Kirby Dach.
After being the projected top pick in the draft all season, the Canadiens decided to pass on talented center Shane Wright to select Slafkovský with the first of their two first-round picks. They followed that by taking another Slovakian player, Filip Mešár, with the No. 26 overall pick.
While Mešár definitely has potential, a late first-round pick is always at best a 50-50 gamble to turn into an NHL regular. The top overall pick in the draft will always make-or-break a team’s draft, and that means Slafkovský will be the storyline going forward.
[Related: 2022 First Round NHL Draft Tracker]
This was the rare draft year where there was some actual intrigue going into the First Round where the No. 1 overall pick was not considered a lock. While the top prospects (Slafkovský, Wright, Logan Cooley) are all fine prospects, there was not a can’t-miss Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid at the top of this class. Despite that, Wright was still viewed as the likely top pick for almost the entire 2021-22 regular season and in the weeks leading up to the draft.
It wasn’t until the draft got closer that there started to be some momentum toward Slafkovský being the pick.
He has all of the physical tools that you could hope for in terms size, strength, speed, and skill. At worst he seemed to be the No. 2 prospect in the class. But to put him at the top ahead of Wright is a fascinating pick because it is all about projection. He spent the 2021-22 season playing in the Finnish League where he had only five goals and five assists in 31 games. Those numbers might not seem great for a top pick in the draft, but you have to remember he was a 17-year-old playing in a top professional league. That is a tough task.
[Related: Shane Wright falls to Seattle Kraken at No. 4 overall]
But it was his play at recent international competitions, including the Olympics and recent World Championships, that seemed to really drive the push to get him to No. 1 overall. He scored seven goals in seven games at the Olympics for Slovakia, and then followed that up with three goals and six assists (nine total points) in eight games at the World Championships. They were extremely impressive performances.
Wright, meanwhile, had a monster year in the OHL after missing the entirety of the 2020-21 season when the league was shutdown due to the pandemic.
Did that lost year of play and development push him down the draft boards a little? And how much weight should two small sample size tournaments against very good (but not quite the best) competition count in making the decision for the top overall pick? It’s something that will certainly be discussed -- and watched closely -- over the next decade as Slafkovský and Wright move on with their careers.
But Slafkovský over Wright was not the only interesting decision Montreal made this week.
They also traded Romanov to the New York Islanders in exchange for the No. 13 overall pick in the draft, which they then flipped to the Blackhawks for Dach.
[Related: Canadiens land Kirby Dach in trade with Chicago Blackhawks]
Romanov has talent and showed a lot of promise during his rookie season, but took a bit of a step backwards this past year (as did most of the young Canadiens before the coaching change). Dach is just three years removed from being the No. 3 overall pick in the draft and is still only 21 years old. Will a fresh start under St. Louis help him reach his ceiling?
The thing about Dach is that even though he was a disappointment in Chicago (especially after seeing the way Bowen Byram, the player taken immediately after him, is starting to develop in Colorado) we still don’t really know what he is or can be because we have hardly seen him play. He showed promise during his rookie year, especially in the bubble, and then missed almost all of the 2020-21 season due to injury. He returned late in the year (probably before he was ready), but was still working his way back from a pretty major wrist injury. The whole season was a wash. How do you properly evaluate him on that?
Then this past season he spent the entire year playing for a lousy team, and at the beginning under a coaching staff that seemed to have no idea what it was doing. It is a brutal situation for a young player to be in.
There is no guarantee he reaches his full potential in Montreal. But given the way Montreal’s young players saw their season turn around following the hiring of St. Louis, and the fact Dach is a full year removed from the injury that robbed him of a year of his development, it is a fine gamble for the Canadiens to take. The worst case scenario is that it cost them Romanov, a young player in a similar position as Dach at the moment. The best case is they catch lightning in a bottle and get a top-line center that can be a part of their core with Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki, and Slafkovský.
Neither of these moves should be written off as bad. Because they are not. Nor should they be looked at as slam dunks with guaranteed success. Because they are not that, either. They are gambles. Interesting gambles. From a suddenly interesting team.