MONTREAL — It was 59 years ago that the NHL entry draft launched in this city under circumstances similar and also quite different from today.
Though the hometown Canadiens also held the No. 1 overall pick that year as now, the event then — known as the “amateur” draft — and for the 16 years afterward took place privately in the ballroom of the downtown Queen Elizabeth Hotel, or the Mount Royal Hotel or league’s head office nearby. It wasn’t until 1980 that it became a public draft at the city’s hallowed Forum, where, just one year later a future Hall of Famer named Ron Francis was called to the podium by the Hartford Whalers at No. 4 overall.
“It was an interesting experience,” said Francis, who four decades later makes his first Montreal draft appearance Thursday as a general manager, heading up the Kraken, though he’d attended this city’s 2009 event as a Carolina assistant. “I was supposed to go at No. 5 to Washington, and actually Washington didn’t like me. So they made a deal to get in front of Hartford to go at No. 3. And they took Bobby Carpenter, and Hartford, I think, was more or less left with me at that point.”
Carpenter — the first high-schooler to jump directly to the NHL — scored more goals than Francis in each of their first five NHL seasons, though the Kraken GM eventually surpassed him by 1,003 career points. This illustrates how unpredictable the draft can be, especially beyond the initial selection or two where the Kraken picked from last year in taking University of Michigan center Matty Beniers second overall.
Francis has the same No. 4 overall choice the Whalers had in taking him, albeit at a different venue since the Bell Centre replaced the Forum 26 years ago. Located across a public square from the hotel where the draft began in 1963, the arena will host the first round Thursday followed by Rounds 2 through 7 on Friday morning,
Francis, after a flurry of March trades, has four second-round picks at Nos. 35, 49, 58 and 61. There’s also a third-round pick at No. 68, three fourth-rounders at Nos. 100, 117 and 123, plus the third-highest in each of the final three rounds.
This is the first in-person draft since June 2019 in Vancouver, British Columbia, when Francis was not yet GM. Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke and owner Jerry Bruckheimer attended that event, asked around about Francis and satisfied themselves he was their guy.
They also met with and hired analytics specialist Alexandra Mandrycky as director of hockey administration.
Montreal, as mentioned, has this year’s No. 1 overall pick as in 1963 when they drafted winger Garry Monahan, who played 748 career games for five teams but hardly dazzled. The Canadiens haven’t picked No. 1 since the first public draft in 1980, when they infamously selected Doug Wickenheiser over hometown favorite and future Hall of Famer Denis Savard, thus ensuring their 1970s dynasty would not be revived.
So, there is huge local pressure on the Canadiens in choosing between consensus choice Shane Wright of the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs, or late-emerging contender Juraj Slafkovsky from the Slovakian professional ranks.
The draft’s projected Top 10, perhaps even top five, is permeated by players from Slovakia and the neighboring Czech Republic.
Slafkovsky teamed in Slovakia with defenseman Simon Nemec, an offensively gifted right-handed shot the Kraken could take at No. 4 if U.S. National Development Program forward Logan Cooley goes third as expected.
The last Slovakian first-rounder was Marko Dano, taken 27th overall by Columbus in 2013. Marian Gaborik was the highest-ever drafted at third overall in 2000 by the Minnesota Wild, who then had Kraken CEO Leiweke in an equivalent role.
There have never been two Slovakian players drafted Top 10.
The Kraken could also go in a different direction and take Czech defenseman David Jiricek.
Montreal as the setting for a Slovakian top-five breakout, with a Czech player in the mix, seems fitting given what happened here during the first televised draft in 1984. The Czechs and Slovaks then formed the same communist-bloc country of Czechoslovakia and the Canadiens, to gasps of astonishment from the crowd, selected defenseman Petr Svoboda from the Czechoslovakian national squad at No. 5 and brought him out to the podium in person.
Svoboda had secretly defected to West Germany that spring. The Canadiens had found out, struck a backroom deal with him and kept him holed up in a Montreal hotel — fearing other teams might select him right after local junior star Mario Lemieux went No. 1 overall to Pittsburgh.
Svoboda became the first Czech to play more than 1,000 NHL games, paving the way for future talent from both countries. His brother, Karel, later joined Svoboda in Montreal and was instrumental in bringing future Kraken forward Daniel Sprong over from The Netherlands to train in hockey as a youngster.
Among those who benefitted from Svoboda’s play and that of the Slovakian-born Stastny brothers — Peter, Anton and Marian — before him, was Kraken amateur scouting director Robert Kron. Born in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia in 1967, Kron would be drafted in the fifth round by Vancouver in 1985 — one year after Svoboda’s defection and the first time the draft was held outside of Montreal, taking place in Toronto.
But Kron wasn’t there, having balked at defecting out of concern about the family he’d leave behind. It wasn’t until the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 that he moved to Canada at age 23 and began his NHL career. Today he’s about as well-connected in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia as any scouting director.
He’s also a longtime friend and former teammate of Miroslav Satan, the former Buffalo Sabres winger now running the hockey federation in his native Slovakia.
“I think him being the head of the federation for a few years now, he was able to put together the kind of a system that I think a lot of countries in Europe now have,” Kron said. “Finland’s been the country that now produces the most. The way they develop, the way they run their junior programs, I think it’s something to learn from. And the Slovakian federation, they did that. They’ve improved their coaches, their structure, their access to facilities.”
The Kraken could also opt to go with a forward at No. 4, with the U.S. National Development Program’s Cutter Gauthier, Finnish pro winger Joakim Kemell and Winnipeg Ice junior centerman Matthew Savoie among candidates.
The Kraken have 11 picks Friday, though some could be used in trades.
“We’re exploring all areas,” Francis said.
But he quickly added that the Kraken differ from most teams — their only future player prospects being last year’s seven draft picks and some minor free agents.
“And in a lot of the deals,” he added, “the teams are not only looking for picks but prospects. And that puts us in a little bit tougher a situation.”
But he’ll explore all options: Whether it’s moving his picks for players, better draft positioning, or using them to choose players for possible trades. And by week’s end, his path to improving the Kraken should become more clear.