From making the Stanley Cup final to snagging the first overall pick, the Montreal Canadiens have had a riveting last year and a half.
Former general manager Marc Bergevin was let go in November and replaced by a new regime headed by executive vice president Jeff Gorton and new GM Kent Hughes. The impact was felt almost immediately as they began dismantling the NHL roster, infusing young talent, and adding to their prospect pipeline at the trade deadline. The 2022 NHL draft, held in Montreal, only bolstered their pipeline that much more.
The first domino to fall was sending Tyler Toffoli to Calgary in a deal that saw wing prospect Emil Heineman, a 2022 first-round pick (used to select Filip Mesar), and a 2023 fifth-round pick along with journeyman Tyler Pitlick. Heineman is an aggressive forechecker who can play in all situations with a big shot. The young Swede can play up and down a lineup as a workhorse that will dig in the corners while also having some finishing prowess. Adding a first-round pick in any rebuild is a great idea and when you add Mesar with that other pick, you’ve gotten a pretty stellar player.
The next domino to fall was trading Ben Chiarot to the Florida Panthers in return for forward Ty Smilanic, Florida’s 2023 first-round pick, and a 2022 fourth-rounder in return. Smilanic is a well-rounded forward with a shiftiness to his game, allowing him to gash opposing defenses. Following that deal, Montreal sent blueliner Brett Kulak to Edmonton for a second-round pick in 2022 and a seventh-rounder in 2024.
They also sent fan-favorite Artturi Lehkonen to Colorado for defensive prospect Justin Barron and a second-round pick in 2024. Barron is a two-way defenseman who leans offensively. His AHL time was up and down, but he looked solid in his brief NHL stint with Montreal last year. All of this work at the trade deadline was done to supplement and infuse talent in a prospect pipeline that was underwhelming and largely disregarded by the former regime. A renewed focus on development by the new staff will go a long way.
That’s not to say that the prospect pool was void of talent. Jordan Harris signed his entry-level deal this past spring and got into a handful of games for the Habs. Harris is an undersized defensive-minded blueliner who just makes the right play and moves the puck up to the forwards from his own end. Josh Roy popped off in the QMJHL this year, scoring the lights out and he will play on Canada’s World Junior team this summer. Jan Myšák has been a very good two-way player for the Hamilton Bulldogs in the OHL while Sean Farrell is a high-end playmaker with Harvard University, scoring at over a point per game pace as a freshman last year in the NCAA.
The Montreal rebuild is off to a solid start and the 2022 NHL draft helped cement that.
2022 NHL Draft Class
Round 1 (1 Overall) - Juraj Slafkovský, LW, TPS Turku (Liiga)
Round 1 (26 Overall) - Filip Mešár, RW, Poprad HK SKP (Slovakia)
Round 2 (33 Overall) - Owen Beck, C, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)
Round 2 (62 Overall) - Lane Hutson, D, U.S. National Development Team (USHL)
Round 3 (75 Overall) - Vinzenz Rohrer, C, Ottawa 67's (OHL)
Round 3 (92 Overall) - Adam Engström, D, Djurgardens Jr. (J20 Nationall)
Round 4 (127 Overall) - Cedrick Guindon, LW, Owen Sound Attack (OHL)
Round 5 (130 Overall) - Jared Davidson, C, Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)
Round 6 (162 Overall) - Emmett Croteau, G, Waterloo Black Hawks (USHL)
Round 7 (194 Overall) - Petteri Nurmi, D, HPK Hameenlinna (Liiga)
Round 7 (216 Overall) - Miguel Tourigny, D, Acadie-Bathurst Titan (QMJHL)
Forward Shane Wright was favored to go No. 1 heading into draft day, but in the leadup to the draft, word came out about how much they valued hulking winger Juraj Slafkovský, the Olympic MVP for Slovakia who was playing pro in Finland. With Slafkovský in the fold, the Canadiens added some size and skill to their roster as he should make the jump to the NHL immediately.
One of the more heartwarming moments of the NHL draft was when they selected Slafkovský's buddy and fellow Slovak winger, Mešár. Mešár is a high pace attacking forward who blends effort and skill. He combines crossovers and bursts of agility to attack defenders, using his high-level hands to put them off balance. It’s not out of the question that Mešár plays the opposite of his fellow countryman at the NHL level in the future, providing a bit of a thunder and lightning dynamic for the Habs.
Beck was the first player taken on day two of the draft. He profiles as a player who is good at many things, but lacks a truly great trait which is why he projects to a middle-six role rather than a top-six spot. Beck is effective through the neutral zone, gaining entry of the offensive zone with control at a high rate. He is a chain-link player who often makes play happen by stacking one good decision on top of another, providing the detail work for his higher-skill linemates.
Towards the end of round two, the Canadiens took one of the drafts most intriguing and skilled defensemen in Lane Hutson. His mobility and offensive instincts are elite. Hutson can manipulate and embarrass opponents at will it seems in the offensive zone. The play creation ability that Hutson has is nearly unmatched in this draft class but the problem is that Hutson is small, even when it comes to undersized blueliners. At 5-foot-8, Hutson felt the need to get an endocrinologist to verify that he will continue growing a bit. The ceiling is high for Hutson but there is some legitimate risk involved, which is why a player with top-20 raw talent fell to the second round.
Vinzenz Rohrer is a physical player who thrives working off the boards and at the net front. His mobility is good in a straight line but lacks lateral agility and shiftiness. He has some crafty skill around the net, elevating the puck from in tight to score. He establishes body position, rotating his hips to stay between the defender and the puck and in control of the play. Adam Engström is a good transitional defender who can be relied upon as a passer or puck carrier through the neutral zone. He has the tools to be an effective offensive player but lacks the cerebral mindset to take over. He can disappear at times, but there are tools to work with.
The Habs have built up a fairly deep prospect pool quite quickly thanks to the calculated moves by the new regime. They are loaded on the wings with both first-round picks from this year’s draft. Slafkovský headlines the left wing but Farrell is a highly skilled playmaker who could be ready to jump in a year or two. Heineman is a pro-ready player who will play in Laval to start the year but if injuries arise, he could be a capable bottom-six player this year. Mešár is the headliner on the right side with Rohrer coming into the pipeline via the draft. Roy will likely wind up on the right wing and Biondi is already playing at Minnesota Duluth. That’s not even mentioning the centers such as Myšák or Smilanic who may have to move from the middle.
The Habs already have Nick Suzuki and Kirby Dach at center on the NHL roster, but don't have a ton of high-end middlemen. It’s not that they lack centers, but they lack the higher-end centers that help build franchises up for a decade. Should they finish near the bottom of the standings as expected this upcoming season, there should be an opportunity to select one of the top centers in the loaded 2023 draft class.
Next Man Up: LW Juraj Slafkovský
The reality of every first-overall pick is that you're almost assured of making the NHL right away unless you're a college defenseman. Slafkovský has the physical frame to handle the NHL, so the only question will be whether the 6-foot-4 Slovak’s skill and offensive game translate right away. He improved at the Liiga level throughout the year but his best string of play offensively came at the Olympics where he had seven goals in seven games. He had five goals and five assists in 31 games at the Liiga level, with 6 points coming after the Olympics. His Liiga playoff performance was impressive, with two goals and five assists in 18 games. The improvement throughout the year was the big reason that Montreal had faith in taking the Slovak at first overall.
Slafkovský has the size and puck protection ability to drive the net and work off the boards and into space as a power forward and the puck skill to work through traffic in space. Slafkovský has impressive shooting talent, with a big snap shot that he unleashes from the slot. His passing ability is where he may wind up finding success early in his NHL career, utilizing his ability to roll off opponents on the boards, opening up to the offensive zone analyzing the ice and threading passes east-west. The 2022 first-overall pick will have ample opportunity to develop his offensive game with the Habs over the next few seasons.
Prospect Depth Chart Notables
LW: Juraj Slafkovský, Sean Farrell, Emil Heineman, Luke Tuch, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard
C: Jan Myšák, Owen Beck, Ty Smilanic, Oliver Kapanen, Riley Kidney
RW: Filip Mešár, Vinzenz Rohrer, Josh Roy, Blake Biondi
LD: Kaiden Guhle, Lane Hutson, Jordan Harris, Mattias Norlinder, Jayden Struble
RD: Justin Barron, Dmitri Kostenko, Daniil Sobolev
G: Cayden Primeau, Jakub Dobes, Frederik Dichow
For a deeper dive into the prospect pool with player rankings, check out the Yearbook and Future Watch editions of the Hockey News print edition!