Patience is a virtue, they say. And Jeff Gorton wants observers, whether journalists, analysts or supporters, to be virtuous. “You have to relax and let it develop. »
The executive vice-president of hockey operations delivered a vibrant plea for patience on Friday in an interview with La Presse.
Patience in the specific case of Juraj Slafkovsky, the very first pick in the 2022 draft. With 10 points in 39 games last season, the big Slovakian didn’t exactly have the sensational debut that others before him had .
“He was an 18-year-old, first pick in a market where everyone knows what he does on and off the ice. It would be a big adjustment for anyone, Gorton said. He learns and he improves. In preparatory matches and in our practices, we all see his growth. But at 18 or 19, it doesn’t happen overnight.
“I don’t want to put a number on him in terms of goals, but he’s a power forward who can be good on the forecheck, at scoring goals and who will be good at 200 feet. That’s a lot for the opponents. »
The impact of first overall picks is undeniable, even if we exclude the exceptional Connor McDavid. In 2022, Nathan MacKinnon led the Avalanche to great honors. But it was nine years after his selection. Last year, the Devils became one of the good teams in the East with the explosion of Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, drafted in 2017 and 2019 respectively. But they simply won a playoff round.
These players, that said, weren’t dominant from Day 1. MacKinnon had a nondescript three seasons after winning the Calder Trophy. Hughes had 21 points in 61 games in his first season. Hischier was a fifty-point player per season, before piling up 80 last season.
“I had Joe Thornton in Boston,” Gorton recalled, taking us back to his time in charge of recruiting for the Bruins. Look at his stats in his first year. It wasn’t extraordinary. He had three goals and four assists [in 55 games]. No one talks about it anymore, now that he’s headed to the Hall of Fame. »
Gorton assures that a stay in Laval is not in the plans for Slafkovsky, even if “never say never”.
The fact remains that a first overall pick defines a general manager’s reign. But this is a long-term process. We still can’t close the books on Gorton’s stay in New York since Alexis Lafrenière, almost 22 years old, is still trying to establish himself as a leading striker.
In recent weeks, there has been extensive talk about the organization’s many hopefuls invited to this training camp. We have obviously talked less about the hopes that are not there.
The question to Gorton was: Who among your NCAA and European prospects are you most excited about? His first answer: Adam Engström, left-handed defender selected in the 3rd round (92nd in total) last year, who plays for Rögle, in the Swedish first division. “He’s played really, really well the last two years,” Gorton said of the man who turns 20 in November. His progression curve is very good. »
Gorton says he’s “hoping” Engström lands in North America in the fall of 2024.
Gorton then talked about “the two Russians we drafted this year.” He started with Yevgeni Volokhin, a goaltender who posted a .927 save percentage in the MHL, a junior circuit in Russia. “The guard caught our attention. His save percentage is excellent, he is off to a very good start. »
The other Russian is Bogdan Konyushkov. Drafted at age 20, this one in the 4th round last summer. Konyushkov plays in Nizhny Novgorod and, at 24:32 per game on average, he is the most used defenseman in the KHL this season. “He’s off to quite a start,” marvels Gorton.
Surprisingly, the VP said nothing about Lane Hutson, a small defender who smashed everything at Boston University last season, even though the NCAA was explicitly mentioned in the question.
And at camp, who are the prospects that stand out the most?
” There are several of them. David Reinbacher was very good for an 18 year old coming in under these circumstances. [Monday] evening, there were moments when he showed a lot of calm. »
Gorton added that “Joshua Roy’s value is rising. He has been playing big hockey since the World Junior Championship. His success with Connor Bedard was huge for him.”
Gorton added an honorable mention to Justin Barron, “who is playing very well.”
Jeff Gorton does not rule out a three-goalie lineup to start the season. “If we have to do it, we’ll do it,” he said. People have ideas, but we’ll see. »
The Habs could opt for this route if they fear losing Cayden Primeau on waivers. The 24-year-old goalkeeper has reached the stage where he must go through waivers before being sold to Laval.
Speaking from Laval, Jean-François Houle is entering the last year of his contract. With the number of prospects who will arrive at Place Bell this season and next year, the position of head coach of the farm club will become crucial. Houle’s work seems appreciated.
“We’re going to talk about it very soon,” assures Gorton. I don’t have a timeline. Every year, we have employees whose contracts we have to manage. This is not something that is discussed openly. JF does a very good job. We’ll talk to him soon, I hope, and sort this out. »
Finally, with the departure of Michael Andlauer for Ottawa, Gorton inherits a new responsibility: that of deputy governor. This means that he will be able to represent the Canadian at meetings of the NHL board of governors.
Geoff Molson holds the title of governor of the Canadian, while Gorton and France Margaret Bélanger are deputy governors.