MONTREAL - Hockey fans, are you not entertained? The first live draft since 2019 came in with fireworks and more shocking twists than a WWE pay-per-view, with Juraj Slafkovsky going first overall to the hometown Canadiens, then fellow Slovakian star Simon Nemec leaping up the board to No. 2, where he was taken by the New Jersey Devils. Ultimately, top prospect Shane Wright ended up going fourth to Seattle when Arizona chose Logan Cooley with the third selection.
Though Montreal's interest in Slafkovsky at No. 1 was well-known, it was still a shock when a team devoid of centers passed on Wright in favor of the big, powerful winger (though in one of the evening's next shocks, the Habs would trade for erstwhile Chicago center Kirby Dach while also dealing away defenseman Alexander Romanov to the Islanders).
"I think I didn’t even hear my name called," Slafkovsky said. "I just heard 'Slovakia,' and then I was like shocked, and I didn’t even listen anymore. I was shaking, I had goosebumps. Yeah, it was an unbelievable moment for me."
The Montreal crowd went through a whole range of emotions when the pick was announced, but it wasn't long before they were cheering and high-fiving Slafkovsky as he walked through the stands in order to get to an interview.
From what I had been told, the Canadiens were taking their decision right down to the wire, but it is notable that owner Geoff Molson sat in on a team meeting with Slafkovsky earlier in the day.
"Yeah, I was shocked," Slafkovsky said. "They said that he wanted to be a part of the meeting, so I was happy that he was there. We didn’t talk, but I think it was good that he was part of it."
With the Devils set at center already - thanks to Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier - there was talk of them taking a defenseman, even if they traded down. As it turns out, they just went for their guy in Nemec, giving Slovakia a 1-2 punch for the first time ever.
"Yeah, it was a big surprise because everybody said that I will be four, five, maybe six," Nemec said. "But second overall is amazing."
Nemec also said that he plans on playing in North America next season and noted that he thinks the AHL would be a good option for him - and of course he would love to get into some NHL games as well.
It's an incredible sign for Slovakian hockey, which has really flourished at the junior level in the past couple of years. Slafkovsky and Nemec both made the Olympic team, with Slafkovsky famously winning MVP honors as Slovakia earned bronze in China. Things got even better for the nation when a third Slovakian, Filip Mesar, went late in the first round - also to Montreal.
But the chaos didn't stop with the first few picks. It was fascinating to see how things played out after, with Chicago jumping up and grabbing defenseman Kevin Korchinski seventh overall. The WHL Seattle product was ranked 13th in Draft Preview, though it's worth noting that after Nemec and David Jiricek (taken sixth overall by Columbus), there was a second tier of blueliners bunched together and Korchinski was part of that collection. So if the Hawks really wanted Korchinski as their specific D-man, they had to pull the trigger when they did.
As for the expected 'Russian Factor,' it didn't really come into play. Anaheim took Pavel Mintyukov 10th overall (he did have the benefit of playing for OHL Saginaw, of course), while the two most skilled forwards - both of whom played in Russia this season - were indeed picked.
Washington, which has never had a fear of getting Russians to come over (having Alex Ovechkin as your spokesman doesn't hurt), took Ivan Miroshnichenko 20th overall, while Minnesota jumped on Danila Yurov four picks later. Both might have been much higher were it not for their situations, but they still went in the first round - which was no guarantee based on everything surrounding Russia right now.
All in all, the first round exceeded all expectations of chaos, between the picks and the trades. It's good to have a live draft once again because Zoom would not have been able to contain all this wildness.