Slafkovsky confident he’ll win support of Canadiens fans over time

Sean Reynolds and Eric Engels discuss Montreal's selection of Juraj Slafkovsky with the first overall pick, their trades to acquire Kirby Dach, and where the team sits in their rebuild.

MONTREAL — Had this small smattering of Canadiens fans known what Kent Hughes was going to do just moments after he stepped up to the podium at the Bell Centre to make Juraj Slafkovsky the first Slovakian ever chosen first overall in the NHL Draft, it’s hard to imagine they still would’ve attempted to spoil what was supposed to be their franchise’s most celebrated choice in 42 years.

But their boos were understandable, and even something to be expected.

In a draft marked by the lack of consensus at the top, with pandemic-arrested development muddling the predictability of the order, it was guaranteed there would be disagreement on whomever the Canadiens were going to use the first pick on.

Just two weeks ago, we jokingly messaged Montreal’s general manager: “Just remember that whatever you decide, people are going to love and hate it. Best of both worlds, haha.”

Hughes, well aware of his predicament, responded: “The 50 per-cent Rule — that’s the best you can hope for!”

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It sounded like more than 50 per cent of the fans in attendance were enamoured with the Canadens’ choice of Slafkovsky once Hughes announced him.

But there were plenty of others who voiced their displeasure.

For years, those fans had been hearing nonstop about Shane Wright — a potential franchise centreman earmarked for first overall in this draft since the day he was granted exceptional status to play in the Ontario Hockey League as a 15-year-old — and they had spent the last number of months building up expectations their team would turn to him to fill a decades-long void at this position of need. Slafkovsky, a six-foot-four, 218-pound left winger, who torched the Olympics and World Championships but was far from lighting up Finland’s top league in between, didn’t fit the part.

When the kid walked the red carpet on his way into the building, he could hear the Canadiens fans who lined the streets booing him.

Hours later, and just 20 minutes after he stepped onto the stage with that mixed reaction echoing through the arena, Slafkovsky had a message for them.

“I think it’s about hockey — (it) is their passion as well as mine,” he started. “And maybe some of them didn’t like me, but I will do everything (so) that I will play good for this team, and they will actually maybe like me one day.”

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It wasn’t long after Slafkovsky left his first media conference that he got the reaction from fans he should’ve had all along.

They were just moments removed from learning Hughes had traded the 98th pick in this year’s draft and defenceman Alex Romanov to the New York Islanders for the 13th-overall pick, which was then flipped with the 66th pick to acquire six-foot-four, 197-pound centre Kirby Dach from the Chicago Blackhawks. At that point, they suddenly stopped mourning an opportunity lost with Wright, who had slipped to fourth overall and was chosen by the Seattle Kraken after the New Jersey Devils chose defenceman Simon Nemec second and the Arizona Coyotes chose centre Logan Cooley third. As Slafkovsky was escorted through a section of the crowd, as he made his way to an interview with TVA Sports, those fans erupted.

No boos this time; just cheers.

“Ole, Ole, Ole. Ole. Ole,” they chanted.

We’ll see how they eventually react to Dach, who was picked third overall in 2019 and is emerging from his entry-level contract having only produced 19 goals and 59 points in 152 games. He has more often than not appeared far from reaching what was once thought to be an extremely high ceiling.

The fans will like this from a Western Conference-based professional scout who responded to our solicitation of his opinion on Dach with, “He can complement skilled players and add size down the middle.”

“He’s a top-nine that can turn into a top-six with time,” the scout added.

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Hughes came off the floor after using Montreal’s second pick of the night (26th overall) on another Slovakian — versatile right winger Filip Mesar, who had eight goals and 16 points in 37 games in his home country’s top league this past season — and said time with coach Martin St. Louis and a revamped development team will allow Dach to be exactly what his organization (and its fans) want him to be.

“We believe in Kirby Dach,” Hughes said of the 21-year-old.

He also believed in Romanov, who had an exceptional second year with the team and was trending towards becoming what any rival would consider to be a bona fide top-four defenceman.

That’s what the 22-year-old will be with the Islanders, and Hughes knows it.

He said trading Romanov was “very difficult.”

“We wanted to move up and it had been two-three weeks we were talking about Kirby Dach,” Hughes added. “It was clear for Chicago that they wanted draft picks. We did everything we could to move up since we had a lot of picks but, in the end, we couldn’t convince someone to make the trade with just the picks and Romanov was a very sought-after player. So, we’re disappointed to lose Romy and wish him the best. Sometimes to get what you want, you have to make sacrifices, too.”

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Hughes said afterwards he wouldn’t have made this deal if Romanov was a power-play quarterback and a major offensive catalyst.

That the Canadiens have a similar prospect in Arber Xhekaj — and left defencemen Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris and Jayden Struble — coming made the deal more palatable. Especially since the Canadiens got to address a want (and dire need) for size, speed and skill up the middle with the acquisition of Dach.

Hughes said he made it before picking Slafkovsky, but the Canadiens were likely going in that direction regardless. The size, skill and character of the player made it so.

Meanwhile, a final meeting with Slafkovsky the morning of the draft pushed it over the edge.

“What we kept coming back to was Juraj — and we saw it even playing with men at the worlds — he wants to make a difference and always wants the puck. I asked him what he likes most playing hockey, and he said being on the ice at 4-3 — when his team is leading 4-3 or losing 4-3 — and that’s what he showed us as a player.”

Hughes said the plan is to have Slafkovsky show it in North America next fall.

It’s not hard to envision him playing alongside Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield — a possibility Slafkovsky said he was extremely compelled by.

“I can play with those two guys, and I think it can be a pretty good line that can make results at the end of the day,” he said. “I think that’s important for Montreal.”

It’s impossible to imagine their fans reacting adversely to that.

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