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Kent Hughes and his draft-day gambles mark change in Habs’ philosophies – Habs Eyes on the Prize

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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 Canadiens 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 Canadiens, 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 Canadiens are trusting their process and addressed the glaring need for another young centre in the organization. Somehow, almost improbably, the Canadiens 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 centre 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 Canadiens 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 Canadiens 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 Canadiens 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 Canadiens 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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Three Stars from Day 4 of WJC: Lysell, Sweden dominate all-European action – Sportsnet.ca

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Sweden made its presence felt in an all-European matchday at the 2022 World Juniors.

The Junior Crowns established their dominance in Group B with a convincing 6-0 win over Austria. They will fight for a first-place finish in the group stage with the United States on Sunday.

Without two of their best young forwards, Red Wings eighth overall pick in 2022 Marco Kasper and Canadiens second-rounder Vinzenz Rohrer, Austria struggled against the Swedes. The good news for the Austrians is that there is no relegation in this rescheduled version of the World Junior Championship. 

Slovakia salvaged their disappointing run in Edmonton by clinching their spot in the quarterfinal round.

The Slovaks — without the top two picks in the 2022 Draft in Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemec — fell 5-4 against their Czech rivals then 11-1 against Canada earlier in the tournament. In their third game on Friday, Slovakia were held up by Latvia but finally took a 3-2 win in a shootout.

The loss means that Latvia will finish in the depths of the tournament. The Latvians can find solace in the fact that the country stood up to Slovakia and at least snagged away one point from their European counterparts.

Here is a look at the top performances from Day 4 of the World Juniors:

3rd star: Isak Rosen, Sweden

Sweden had yet to score on the power play at Rogers Place yet but Rosen rose to the occasion with one goal and one assist.

After a first period where the Swedes had 21 shots but only one goal, Rosen added a second goal to his tournament tally and broke their power play drought.

The Austrians forgot about the winger near the right faceoff circle. Fabian Lysell located Rosen with a cross-ice pass of his own and the young winger bagged in the one-timer on one knee.  

Rosen later told Swedish media that this was an important goal for his country after they spent the pre-tournament and the first game of the WJC without scoring on the power play.

The Buffalo Sabres prospect is known for his strong shot but he also has quite the passing ability. Rosen used his physicality to impose himself and get Sweden another goal. 

The 19-year-old dispossessed Austria’s Tim Geifes along the boards and then found his captain Emil Andrae with a swift cross-ice pass to notch his country’s fourth goal of the game.

Rosen will cross the pond to North America for the first time for the upcoming season. The wingers will play for the Rochester Americans of the AHL and be yet another addition to the young Sabres pipeline. 

Honourable mention: Slovakia’s Adam Sykora blew away the few fans in attendance with a flash of brilliance to get his country levelled 1-1 in the first period. He skated his way past a defenceman then made a give-and-go play with Jakub Demek to fool Lativian goalie Bruno Bruveris. 

Slovakia will try to channel the relief from their shootout win against the high-flying Finns on Sunday. On their end, the Latvians will hope to hold another close game on Sunday against Czechia.

2nd star: Emil Andrae, Sweden

A defenceman with two goals in a single game is always worth mentioning. Emil Andrae returned to the ice after a season-ending injury with HV71 and helped his team find another gear in the second period.

The 54th overall pick by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2021 was touted as a blueliner that can play on both sides of the puck and proved it against Austria.

Sweden’s captain scored twice in the span of 1:05 to keep the Austrians at bay and secure the victory.

The five-foot-nine defenceman took advantage of Rosen’s forced turnover to score his first goal. Andrae found himself in a perfect position to utilize his heavy wrister on the power play.

Andrae added his second goal from the point with another wrist shot directed in traffic to get Sweden up by four goals. The captain chipped in a late secondary assist in the third period to finish the game with three points and a plus-2 differential.

1st star: Fabian Lysell, Sweden

On an all-European afternoon, Fabian Lysell made his experience of North American ice felt. The winger made sure to remind hockey fans that the Boston Bruins drafted him in the first round of the 2021 NHL Draft.

Lysell finished the game with one goal and one assist. He joins his teammates Rosen and Andrea as Sweden’s leading scorers with three points each.

The winger may have missed a penalty shot but he bounced back admirably with a goal a few seconds later.

From a very tight angle, Lysell found the tiniest bit of space above Austrian netminder Sebastian Wraneschitz’s shoulder to score Sweden’s fifth of the game.

The winger showed that his game isn’t too far away from the NHL and that he doesn’t mind getting his nose dirty. The Swede, who is used to North American ice playing for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL, crashed Wraneschitz’s net early on in the game in an attempt to kickstart Sweden’s domination.

Lysell and his country-mates will need to keep the pace up as Sweden looks to take on the Americans on Sunday and the surprising Germans on Monday.

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Joshua Roy off to a hot start at the World Juniors – Habs Eyes on the Prize

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The Montreal Canadiens have several prospects in action at this summer’s World Junior Hockey Championship in Edmonton. In today’s episode of Habsent Minded Extra, I’m taking a look at how fifth-rounder Joshua Roy has become a key member of the powerhouse Canadians in their quest for gold.

He has played most of his minutes so far on the top line with Mason McTavish and Connor Bedard. That trio has been relied upon to drive offense for the team so far, and while their initial contest against Latvia was somewhat lukewarm, they exploded against Slovakia on Thursday night.

In a selfless act, Roy gave up a chance at a breakaway and his first goal of the tournament by passing to McTavish, and insisting that the latter take his attempt at notching the hat trick, which he did.

With the game well in hand for Canada in the third period, head coach Dave Cameron brought out the line blender. This saw Roy shifted down in the lineup to play with Islanders prospect William Dufour, and Senators prospect Zack Ostapchuk. An eyebrow raiser at first given Roy’s performance, but it yielded results almost immediately.

Roy scored his first goal of the tournament, and added an assist on an Ostapchuk goal to finish with four points against Slovakia, tying him for second in tournament scoring behind McTavish.

Whether that line blending sticks or not, Roy showed in this game is that he can produce wherever they put him in the lineup. With Dufour and Ostapchuk, he actually gets to play more of a similar trigger-man role that he’s used to in Sherbrooke, and it may even help his overall production.

His selflessness, and acceptance of a checking and puck retrieval role with the top guns means they can put him right back on that top line as well. After barely missing out on the roster for the ill-fated December 2021 tournament, he has established himself as a versatile tool for team Canada.

That versatility should earn him plenty of playing time for the remainder of this tournament, and could make him a no-brainer for a big role with the team when they reconvene in December for the next one.

Click the play button below to listen to my full thoughts on Roy’s hot start ahead of tonight’s game against Czechia.

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Series preview: Blue Jays head into crucial set against surging Guardians – Sportsnet.ca

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We may be in the dog days of August but the American League wild-card race is intensifying to the point where every series carries weight for contending teams.

That’s been the case for the Toronto Blue Jays all month and will continue as the club opens a three-game set at Rogers Centre against the Cleveland Guardians on Friday.

Here is a look at the Guardians-Blue Jays series.

Probable pitchers

Friday, 7:07 p.m. ET: Cleveland RHP Cal Quantrill (8-5, 3.88 ERA) vs. Toronto RHP Jose Berrios (8-4, 5.19 ERA)

Saturday, 3:07 p.m. ET: Cleveland RHP Triston McKenzie (8-8, 3.16 ERA) vs. TBA

Sunday, 1:37 p.m. ET: Cleveland RHP Shane Bieber (7-6, 3.21 ERA) vs. TBA

(All games on Sportsnet)

Latest on the Blue Jays

The Blue Jays (60-50) currently sit atop the AL wild-card standings with a half-game lead over the Mariners and a two-game lead over the third-place Tampa Bay Rays.

The Blue Jays are coming off a 3-5 road trip through Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Baltimore. You could make the argument that Toronto got lucky when Wednesday’s game in Baltimore was rained out, given the weather prevented an opportunity to be swept in three games by the surging Orioles.

The Blue Jays’ record against teams above .500 stands at 29-38 and that will need to improve in a hurry. Following the set against Cleveland, Toronto will host the Orioles for three games and then head to Yankee Stadium for a four-game series.

It’s fair to say this is an important stretch for a Blue Jays club that lost outfielder George Springer, starter Ross Stripling and reliever Tim Mayza to the injured list on the recent road trip.

Latest on the Guardians

The AL Central-leading Guardians (59-52) arrive in Toronto fresh off a sweep of the Detroit Tigers and have won eight of their last 11 games.

In recent years, the Guardians have typically been buoyed by their pitching staff. That area has been a struggle for the team for parts of this season,but  it looks to be rounding into form.

Each of the three starters Cleveland will throw at the Blue Jays — Cal Quantrill, Triston McKenzie and Shane Bieber — is coming off a dominant, scoreless outing. Since the all-star break, the right-handed trio has combined for a 3.48 ERA over 12 starts.

Reliever James Karinchak won’t make the trip to Toronto due to Canadian vaccination requirements.

Home sweet home

Blue Jays right-hander Jose Berrios was slated to start Wednesday’s game but because it was postponed, he’ll now take the mound on Friday. That might actually work out in his favour.

Berrios has been the author of some weird splits this season:

— In 11 starts at home, he sports a 3.23 ERA with 70 strikeouts across 64 innings.

— In 11 starts on the road, Berrios has posted a whopping 7.50 ERA with just 37 strikeouts over 54 innings.

There are times a pitcher’s bloated ERA can be explained away as the result of one or two bad outings. That’s not the case for Berrios, though.

The veteran has allowed at least five earned runs in six of his road starts. That includes his only outing against the Guardians this season — a May 5 contest in which he allowed six runs on eight hits over 4.2 innings.

The pitchers set to follow Berrios and toe the rubber in Saturday and Sunday’s games have yet to be announced by the Blue Jays.

Meaningful debuts

Remember all that hullabaloo about whether Whit Merrifield would get a COVID-19 vaccine and be allowed to travel to Toronto?

Well, shortly after he was acquired at the trade deadline by the Blue Jays, the utility player indicated that he did in fact get vaccinated. This series will feature his first home game with his new club.

Merrifield is hitting .286 (6-for-21) while playing mostly in centrefield since his trade from the Kansas City Royals.

In 15 career games at Rogers Centre, he sports a .263/.364/.421 slash line with two homers and three doubles.

This series will also mark a homecoming of sorts for a pair of Guardians players: Quantrill, of Port Hope, Ont., and first baseman Josh Naylor, a native of Mississauga, Ont.

This is Naylor’s fourth year in the major leagues and third with the Guardians, but the 25-year-old has yet to take the field for a major-league game at Rogers Centre. Quantrill, meanwhile, made his lone MLB start at Rogers Centre in 2019 when he was a member of the San Diego Padres.

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