Will Canadiens draft and trade gambles pay off?

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Say this for the current Montreal Canadiens front office: They are not afraid to be bold with little regard to what the outside hockey world might think of their moves.

When it came time to make a head coaching change during the 2021-22 season they went with Hall of Fame player Martin St. Louis, even though he had no major coaching experience of any kind and had no prior connection to the Canadiens. In a league that recycles the same 30-or-so people for top positions, it was definitely a surprising hire.

Their bold moves continued this week at the NHL draft with the selection of Slovakian winger Juraj Slafkovský with the No. 1 overall pick, and the three-team trade that saw them send out defenseman Alexander Romanov and bring in Kirby Dach.

After being the projected top pick in the draft all season, the Canadiens decided to pass on talented center Shane Wright to select Slafkovský with the first of their two first-round picks. They followed that by taking another Slovakian player, Filip Mešár, with the No. 26 overall pick.

While Mešár definitely has potential, a late first-round pick is always at best a 50-50 gamble to turn into an NHL regular. The top overall pick in the draft will always make-or-break a team’s draft, and that means Slafkovský will be the storyline going forward.

[Related: 2022 First Round NHL Draft Tracker]

This was the rare draft year where there was some actual intrigue going into the First Round where the No. 1 overall pick was not considered a lock. While the top prospects (Slafkovský, Wright, Logan Cooley) are all fine prospects, there was not a can’t-miss Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid at the top of this class. Despite that, Wright was still viewed as the likely top pick for almost the entire 2021-22 regular season and in the weeks leading up to the draft.

It wasn’t until the draft got closer that there started to be some momentum toward Slafkovský being the pick.

He has all of the physical tools that you could hope for in terms size, strength, speed, and skill. At worst he seemed to be the No. 2 prospect in the class. But to put him at the top ahead of Wright is a fascinating pick because it is all about projection. He spent the 2021-22 season playing in the Finnish League where he had only five goals and five assists in 31 games. Those numbers might not seem great for a top pick in the draft, but you have to remember he was a 17-year-old playing in a top professional league. That is a tough task.

[Related: Shane Wright falls to Seattle Kraken at No. 4 overall]

But it was his play at recent international competitions, including the Olympics and recent World Championships, that seemed to really drive the push to get him to No. 1 overall. He scored seven goals in seven games at the Olympics for Slovakia, and then followed that up with  three goals and six assists (nine total points) in eight games at the World Championships. They were extremely impressive performances.

Wright, meanwhile, had a monster year in the OHL after missing the entirety of the 2020-21 season when the league was shutdown due to the pandemic.

Did that lost year of play and development push him down the draft boards a little? And how much weight should two small sample size tournaments against very good (but not quite the best) competition count in making the decision for the top overall pick? It’s something that will certainly be discussed — and watched closely — over the next decade as Slafkovský and Wright move on with their careers.

But Slafkovský over Wright was not the only interesting decision Montreal made this week.

They also traded Romanov to the New York Islanders in exchange for the No. 13 overall pick in the draft, which they then flipped to the Blackhawks for Dach.

[Related: Canadiens land Kirby Dach in trade with Chicago Blackhawks]

Romanov has talent and showed a lot of promise during his rookie season, but took a bit of a step backwards this past year (as did most of the young Canadiens before the coaching change). Dach is just three years removed from being the No. 3 overall pick in the draft and is still only 21 years old. Will a fresh start under St. Louis help him reach his ceiling?

The thing about Dach is that even though he was a disappointment in Chicago (especially after seeing the way Bowen Byram, the player taken immediately after him, is starting to develop in Colorado) we still don’t really know what he is or can be because we have hardly seen him play. He showed promise during his rookie year, especially in the bubble, and then missed almost all of the 2020-21 season due to injury. He returned late in the year (probably before he was ready), but was still working his way back from a pretty major wrist injury. The whole season was a wash. How do you properly evaluate him on that?

Then this past season he spent the entire year playing for a lousy team, and at the beginning under a coaching staff that seemed to have no idea what it was doing. It is a brutal situation for a young player to be in.

There is no guarantee he reaches his full potential in Montreal. But given the way Montreal’s young players saw their season turn around following the hiring of St. Louis, and the fact Dach is a full year removed from the injury that robbed him of a year of his development, it is a fine gamble for the Canadiens to take. The worst case scenario is that it cost them Romanov, a young player in a similar position as Dach at the moment. The best case is they catch lightning in a bottle and get a top-line center that can be a part of their core with Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki, and Slafkovský.

Neither of these moves should be written off as bad. Because they are not. Nor should they be looked at as slam dunks with guaranteed success. Because they are not that, either. They are gambles. Interesting gambles. From a suddenly interesting team.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.