MONTREAL -- Slovakian-born skaters dominated early at the 2022 NHL draft, where left winger Juraj Slafkovsky went No. 1 overall to the Montreal Canadiens and defenseman Simon Nemec was selected at No. 2 by the New Jersey Devilson Thursday night.
They became the highest-selected Slovakian players in history, surpassing Marian Gaborik, who went third overall in 2000.
Slafkovsky was the surprise choice at No. 1 over Shane Wright, who slid all the way to the Seattle Kraken at No. 4. Wright, a Kingston Frontenacs (OHL) center, had long been considered this draft's top prospect, but Slafkovsky's stellar year elevated his stock enough to unseat Wright.
Slafkovsky said he was caught off guard when Montreal general manager Kent Hughes announced his name.
"I felt they were pretty interested," he said. "When I heard 'from Slovakia' I went, 'Wow!'"
Logan Cooley of the U.S. national team development program (NTDP) went to the Arizona Coyotes with the No. 3 pick, and left wing Cutter Gauthier went fifth to the Philadelphia Flyers to round out the top five.
At 18, Slafkovsky already has the size (6-foot-4, 218 pounds) of a power forward to complement his finesse as a highly skilled offensive player. He developed his reputation as a hard-nosed, competitive skater with TPS of the Finnish League; last season he produced five goals and 10 points in 31 games.
Unlike some of his peers, Slafkovsky has experience playing with and against men internationally. He was just 17 when named to the Slovakian Olympic team in 2022 and excelled beyond expectations. Slafkovsky led the Olympic field with seven goals in seven games to help Slovakia take home bronze, the country's first Olympic medal in ice hockey, and earn tournament MVP honors.
New Jersey held the No. 2 pick and was unlikely to select a center given its depth at the position. The Devils went instead with Nemec, Slafkovsky's Olympic teammate. Nemec is a coveted right-shot blueliner with offensive upside and projected NHL readiness. He could quickly add depth to a New Jersey backend in need of it.
"I lost the words," Nemec said of being the second pick. "We were kids when we dream about NHL draft."
The Arizona Coyotes had the opportunity to snag Wright at No. 3, but went with a different center in Cooley. Although he is smaller than Wright at 5-foot-10, Cooley plays a big two-way game and has great offensive ability, as he showcased in his 75-point performance through 51 games with the NTDP last season.
When Seattle general manager Ron Francis stepped to the podium at No. 4, he didn't hesitate to name Wright as the team's selection. Wright started last season slowly with 22 points in 19 games before rallying to finish with 94 points in 66 games. He's not a generational talent, but Wright can develop into a No. 1 center, and for the expansion Kraken he offers a franchise cornerstone to build around for years to come.
Wright said would play with a chip on his shoulder and with "a little more fire" after three teams passed on him in the draft.
Gauthier, another NTDP product, is a big body (6-foot-4) with a booming shot and solid defensive upside. His skill set is less dynamic than some other top prospects, which fits the most bruising, physical style the Flyers play with. It's a natural fit.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.