Kent Hughes and his draft-day gambles mark change in Habs’ philosophies

Heading into the 2022 NHL Draft, the entire hockey world shifted its gaze to the Montreal Canadiens. Nobody truly knew what the Habs were going to do, and with 14 picks there was a wide range of what Kent Hughes could do as well.

In the end, the Canadians broke from the year-long consensus and selected the towering Slovak winger Juraj Slafkovsky first overall, kicking off a truly chaotic first round that left many of us in the press row staring in stunned silence. Slafkovsky wasn’t picked spur of the moment. According to Nick Bobrov, the team was still in deep debate going into Thursday morning, and when the time came the team planted their flag alongside the big winger.

This would end up being the defining trend of the weekend. The Canadians, following a disastrous regular season, were not going to play it safe in their rebuild.

Make no mistake, all draft picks are risks, and Slafkovsky is not immune to that and the worry over his projection based on his play in Liiga is fair. However, Montreal sees enough budding potential in him to reach an incredibly high ceiling. At 18 years old, Slafkovsky is a physical specimen, standing 6’4” and 229 lbs, but he doesn’t play a brute force, runaway train style. There is skill and talent inside that massive frame, and a desire to prove that he can be a difference-maker.

There would have been nothing wrong with selecting the “safe” option in Shane Wright but the Canadians are trusting their process and addressed the glaring need for another young center in the organization. Somehow, almost improbably, the Canadians topped their first overall pick shock by also acquiring Kirby Dach through a pair of deals with the New York Islanders and Chicago Blackhawks. The Habs traded Alexander Romanov and the 98th overall pick for the 13th overall pick and flipped that and the 66th overall pick for Dach.

Bold is almost underscoring what Hughes did with this deal, even as Chicago is in dire straits thanks to an impending Duncan Keith recapture penalty. Dach, a former third-overall pick was seemingly stagnating in Chicago where the team is embarking on some sort of rebuild of its own, but a rebuild that involved trading two of their youngest available assets. Both Hughes and Kyle Davidson are new GMs put into extremely difficult spots, the only difference is Hughes didn’t seem to sweat the pressure and calmly added a 21-year-old center to his organization. Dach, much like Slafkovsky has all the physical gifts to be a dominant force every single night, but injuries and a directionless Chicago team have kept him from barely scratching the surface on that.

A previous GM of the Canadians said “it’s hard to find centres,” which is true in some regards; it’s not every day that a 21-year-old, third-overall pick falls out into the trade market. At the same time, you cannot passively wait to make an impact for your team, being bold is the best way to help along your rebuild, and that’s what Hughes has done. Dach is a gamble play on the part of the Canadiens GM, but one that has tremendous payoff potential for the franchise if it goes according to plan.

It’s a tough pill to swallow trading a young defender that many had high hopes for, but the new front office saw what they have in players like Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris and even Justin Barron, allowing them the opportunity to improve the team elsewhere. Much like drafting Slafkovsky and trading for Dach, it’s a move that carries risk, but if the Canadians aren’t willing to try and take risks the rebuild will take that much longer.

Without delving in too deeply into the picks beyond the second round, the risk-taking Canadians continued to swing for prospects with high ceilings in their first four picks overall. Filip Mesar and Lane Hutson are insanely skilled players. They have the talent profile to become impact offensive contributors in the NHL if their development progresses along properly. Hutson in particular stood out on a team of high-end draft picks in the USNTDP, leaving the program as its second-highest scoring defender of all time behind Cam York. Yes, Hutson stands a modest 5’8”, and likely weighs in at 160 lbs after a big meal, but his on-ice skills are undeniable. He skates like the breeze, daring defenders to try and slow him down as he dangles around them. With his size, Hutson had to learn how to battle against bigger opponents, and even with all his talents, his ability to evolve his game to overcome a size disparity is going to help him.

He’s far from a safe, stay-at-home defender, but the Canadians have learned that you need a puck-moving star to make things happen from your blue line out.

Finally, there’s Filip Mesar who, like Hutson, has all the skating tools and hand-eye coordination to be a terrifying threat on the ice. His physical side isn’t quite there yet, but his daringness to go one-on-one with opponents — and oftentimes beat them on skill alone — is commendable. The risks are there, but so is the tremendous upside for Mesar, who has said he wants to play in North America this upcoming year. Slafkovsky as well is also likely crossing the pond, giving Montreal fans and potentially Laval Rocket fans some really exciting prospects to watch.

To put a bow on things, the Canadiens had a tremendous opportunity in front of them with this NHL Draft. Over a dozen picks at their disposal and with needs all over the organization, they stepped out of the shadows of the previous regime. While there were some high ceiling picks made in previous years (see Joshua Roy) it’s rare that we’ve seen Montreal come out and go for so many in a row. Hughes understands the gravity of the situation he’s in and that the Habs have to take chances to get better.

It’s a stark change from previous drafts where picks could be seen as safe, and that their potential high-end NHL impact isn’t overly likely. There is the chance that this draft could be looked at as an absolute disaster if things go sideways but it could also go down as a crowning moment for the Hughes and Jeff Gorton tandem if their picks develop into their potential.

It’s going to be a wild ride as we await to see what the future holds, but one thing is for certain right now, this is a very different Habs organization now.

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