How Ceilings and Floors are Shaping the Habs’ Future

In a draft process full of twists and turns, the team’s new management ended up shocking the hockey world

Panos Michalakapoulos

Some things in life are just meant to be. 

The Canadiens de Montréal were supposed to host the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. Local phenom Alexis Lafrenière was about to be drafted in front of his home province, but the pandemic changed everything. It was held virtually, and the Habs were awarded the 2022 event.

In 2021, the team went on a magical playoff run, reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993. For once, fans started believing in them again.

But everything came crashing down.

Montreal lost key contributors in Corey Perry, Philip Danault, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi to free agency, and with injuries to veteran all-stars Shea Weber and Carey Price, the season took a turn for the worse.

General Manager Marc Bergevin tried his best to patch these holes, but it was a lost cause. He, along with Head Coach Dominique Ducharme, were fired because of the squad’s poor performance, in a 2021-22 season that turned out to be one of the worst in the team’s history.

One glimmer of hope remained. By finishing last in the league that season, they held the best odds to win the NHL Draft Lottery, and have the privilege to select the first overall pick of the 2022 NHL Draft in front of their fans. On May 10, the hockey gods worked in favour of Montreal, and the team was awarded the first selection.

For two months, draft talk took over the town. Who would the team pick? Shane Wright was the obvious choice.

The Canadian center had been awarded exceptional status by the Canadian Hockey League (CHL). This meant that he could play junior hockey at 15, instead of the usual cut-off of 16. Only a select group of players, such as Connor McDavid and John Tavares have been given this opportunity.

Wright did not disappoint in his first season with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). He led his team in scoring with 39 goals and 66 points in only 58 games, despite facing players that were sometimes four or five years older than him.

Despite this, the pandemic decimated Wright's stardom. The OHL's 2020-21 season was canceled, meaning Wright would have to put building his phenom-caliber resume on hold. Like many others, Wright was not able to play a hockey game that year. When the OHL returned this past fall, the Burlington Ontario native played well. He led all draft-eligible players in Canadian junior hockey with 94 points in 63 games.

But critics started to raise questions about Wright’s ceiling as a player. Yes, he was very good, but would he ever become a transcendent NHL superstar? When he published his draft rankings in June, insider Bob McKenzie explained that “Wright’s game left some scouts wanting more from him, especially in terms of competitiveness and goalscoring”.

Two other prospects emerged into the mix as potential selections: A Slovakian left-winger giant named Juraj Slafkovsky, and Logan Cooley, a smaller, but explosive American center who models his game after Patrick Kane.

Wright’s game left some scouts wanting more from him, especially in terms of competitiveness and goalscoring — Bob McKenzie, TSN

For some, it was a no-brainer. Wright was a center, a position of need for Montreal, especially with the departures of Danault and Kotkaniemi.

Ultimately, it came down to floors and ceilings. The consensus was that he had a high floor, meaning that he had good chances of becoming an NHL player. His ceiling though was considered to be limited. Speculations that he would never be anything more than a second-line center, and that is not what you look for in a number one overall pick. 

The pick is to be used on an athlete that transforms a franchise. Slafkovsky and Cooley were different. They were riskier picks, but with potentially higher ceilings than Wright. They were raw. They could become perennial superstars or all-time busts.

In the days leading up to the draft, various social media polls revealed that 70 to 80 % of Canadiens fans wanted Wright to be the pick. In the weeks preceding the selection, Wright himself was very confident: “It's obvious that I would like to be the first player drafted because I believe I have the skills to justify that selection rank,” he said.

But on the night of July 7, newly appointed Montreal general manager Kent Hughes shocked the hockey world when he chose Juraj Slafkovsky

So, what made the Habs choose the Slovakian instead of Wright, who, not too long before then, was considered a no-brainer for the pick?

Simply put, Slafkovsky is big. Despite only having turned 18 at the end of March, Slafkovsky is already 6’4 and 230 pounds. He is huge, but also a fast skater. The left-winger is not afraid to use his body to cut to the net or to win one on one battles. He possesses smooth hands and a strong shot too.

But he is criticized for his lack of hockey IQ and positioning. The Košice native played against men in Finland’s top league last season, and some experts were troubled by his lack of production. 

Slafkvoksy was able to compensate for his underwhelming season in Finland by performing tremendously on the international stage. While representing Slovakia during the 2022 Winter Olympics, he scored seven goals in seven games, earning him the title of tournament MVP, and helping his country secure its first ever medal since they were part of Czechoslovakia. He also doubled down on his international accomplishments during the World Championships when he scored nine points in eight games.

It seems that it was enough to convince the Habs front office, and the subsequent picks may have proven them right.

Indeed, not only was Shane Wright not chosen first, he was not picked second or third either.

With Wright still on the board, an opportunity arose for the franchises who were selecting next. However, both the New Jersey Devils and the Arizona Coyotes stuck to their game plan. He was only chosen fourth, by the Seattle Kraken. 

At least, the Canadiens were still able to get a young center. Hughes stole the show when he executed two trades to acquire Kirby Dach from the Chicago Blackhawks, giving away Alexander Romanov, a third and a fourth-round pick in the process. 

It did not take very long for Montreal fans to fall in love with Slafkovsky. When Chicago stepped on stage for the 13th pick, “Olé Olé” chants were heard across the Bell Center, as the Slovakian was greeting spectators in the stands.

Only time will tell if the right pick was made, but as they would say in French, “Le hasard fait bien les choses.”