By JD Lagrange – A couple of years ago, there wouldn’t be any debate about who the first overall pick at the 2022 NHL Draft would be. And it’s particularly true amongst the Montreal Canadiens fan base as no one would have predicted that they would be selecting first overall. But of course, COVID, injuries, shortened seasons and many uncontrollable events factored into making this year’s draft… a total mess.
Now, the talk of town is whom the Canadiens should select with their first overall pick, the first time they will speak first since 1980 when they selected… Doug Wickenheiser. And for those like yours truly who lived through that ordeal, 2022 raises some serious red flags. You see, Wickenheiser was the consensus number one pick back then, and we know the rest of the story.
Shane Wright is a bit more of a contested consensus number one this year than Wickenheiser was in 1980. But because the Canadiens are in dire need of centers, it feels to the fan base like he’s the only suitable option. Yet, NHL scouts everywhere are being quoted saying that it’s a very, very tight race with Slovak power forward Juraj Slafkovsky.
NHL Scouts quotes compilation
In recent weeks, we have written a few articles citing those NHL scouts and I thought that it would be useful to have most of them all in one place. I’ve gathered quotes from those articles and here they all are.
“I know many scouts who have Wright outside of their top-3. On my list, I have had Slafkovsky ranked number one since March”, said Mark Edwards, head scout for Hockey Prospect.
“In general, I will always prefer a center instead of a winger. But management must be careful to not focus too much on the center and miss out on a better player who happens to be a winger. In 2015, I had Mitch Marner (who was a winger) ahead of Dylan Strome (a center) and it was a very easy decision in my mind. But it’s often difficult to put a winger ahead of a center”, said Edwards of Hockey Prospect. Strome was selected third, behind Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, while Marner was selected fourth.
“I usually go for the center ahead of a winger, but sometimes, the winger is simply the better player. I have Slafkovsky ahead of Wright”, said another NHL scout.
“I am certain that more than 10 teams consider Slafkovsky as their first pick since the World Championship”, said a scout in June.
“His play at the end of the season allows Montreal to pick the player that management likes the most. They have less pressure to pick Wright as the public now knows what we have known for a few months”, said another NHL scout in June.
“Slafkovsky is the guy who stood out the most in all of that”, says Alain Chainey, who spent more than 20 years as a scout and Director of Amateur Scouting for the Anaheim Ducks. “And I’m not one to claim that Shane Wright is just good, no more. He’s an excellent player who will have a good career, but I saw in Slafkovsky something more. He’s difficult to check along the boards. It’s a rare combination, finally, of size, speed, abilities and physical implication. He’s not the type of player you see very often.”
“Wright is an excellent player, no doubt about it. But every time I’ve seen him play, I left the arena thinking that I would have liked to see more drive from him. Especially from a prospect of his rank”, explained a scout, consulted in the past few days.
“I can’t guarantee anything (for the Habs’ choice). But for [Director of Player Personnel and Amateur Scouting] Martin Lapointe, it’s impossible that Wright is his type of player, impossible… I cannot see Lapointe, after seeing Wright, coming out of the arena, being excited and say ‘Wow he’s good! He plays with drive and he has character‘”, said a NHL scout.
“The potential is there with what Wright has accomplished in the past. He’s a guy who has higher probabilities to play a bigger role in your formation (if he develops to his maximum). But his play, this year, hasn’t been up to par”, said a scout from an Eastern team.
“I think that Slafkovsky can grow your team, with what he can accomplish, and that he will be an impact player for many years to come. He just played against a bunch of NHL players (at the World Championships) and he was already stronger than them. Once he has the puck and he boxes out, nobody can take the puck away from him”, explained a European scout.
“Slafkovsky might be one that has more potential, but the three (Slafkovsky, Wright and Cooley) are a good choice for the Canadiens. I also don’t think that any one of them is an exceptional player in that trio. And that’s okay, it doesn’t happen every year. I dont’ think the Canadiens will build their team around that player”, a scout reminded everyone.
“I’m convinced that many teams don’t have Wright ranked first. Fans all range on that side because that’s the direction of the narrative, the logical thing. The Canadiens won’t be passing on a Connor McDavid by not opting for Wright”, related a scout.
“The first thing to realize is that it’s not easy to play in the Finnish league”, said a source who has been a scout for over 10 years at the NHL level. “The style of hockey being played is very tight, with all kinds of systems using the trap. Producing at a high level is quite the challenge, particularly for a young athlete. As a matter of fact, if you were to put the best Canadian prospects from this upcoming NHL Draft into Liiga, I am convinced that it would be extremely hard for them as well”
“That there have been others, Europeans, who had success without having ever played a game in North America. But it’s evident that you don’t want to miss when selecting at the top. At the opposite, if Slafkovsky had played for London this year, he might have scored 60 goals and everyone would be talking about him. It’s always the comparable that’s difficult to get”, explained a scout.
“His creativity as a playmaker is good, but not excellent. But how many 6-foot 4-inches players, driving the net with determination, have exceptional creativity too? Few players have all of those tools like Mario Lemieux”, explained a scout who struggled to find anything negative about the Slovak.
“I admit that my take on Slafkovsky has had its ups and downs because of his play in Liiga. I had my doubts for that reason. But, due to his second half of the season and his brilliance internationally, I have no more doubts.”, summarized a scout.
“It’s a peculiar draft year,” said one NHL team head scout. “Neither one of them are locks to be first-line players in the NHL. I’m not saying one or the other couldn’t become first liners, they’re both good prospects, but unlike a lot of years, this draft doesn’t have any great prospects. There are no slam dunks. There are things I like about both guys, but I have some reservations, too.”
“What separates Slafkovsky from Wright for me is that he’s bigger, he played harder, he was more consistent with his competitiveness, and he stepped up to produce on big stages [Olympics and world championship],” another NHL head scout said. “In my view, he has the best chance to be a first-line NHL forward.”
“Teams who rank Slafkovsky at No. 1 are struggling with Wright’s draft year being so average [compared to prior seasons],” he said. “Teams who like Wright at No. 1 can’t forget what they saw in Wright’s first OHL season and the 2021 U-18 world championship.”
“Yes, there is clearly a debate for the first pick”, said a western scout. “Wright will become a good center in the NHL. I describe him as a good player, no doubt. But he’s not a franchise player. Shane is smart, responsible at both ends of the ice, he has a good shot and good offensive attributes. But he doesn’t keep you at the edge of your seat. I would be thinking of others. Slafkovsky has a rare element to his game, he’s a natural scorer. Plus he’s imposing at 6-foot 4-inches. Cooley is probably the one with the highest potential.”
“I came out of Kington disappointed in more than one occasion”, said another western scout.
“An intelligent young man, a responsible center. He likely doesn’t have the potential to become a star player. He is not the next Patrice Bergeron, but he is in the mold of Nico Hischier. He will play on the top two lines, he has good aptitudes and some skills”, said an eastern conference scout.
“Juraj is a big man who can dominate with his physique, and find space in the offensive zone. He protects the puck and has natural scorer’s instincts. You can’t teach a player how to score goals. It must come naturally and it does for him. One day, he will score 40 goals in the NHL”, said a scout from the east.
There you have it. Personally, I’m leaning towards Slafkovsky at number one. But I will not be upset if the Canadiens select Wright. The same goes if, after doing their due diligence, Logan Cooley, Simon Nemec or David Jiricek is called up first. I will tell myself that they know things that I don’t (which is the ultimate truth) and that these guys deserve that we trust them… until they prove that they cannot be trusted.
Here’s hoping that this finicky fan base rallies behind them no matter what. Unfortunately, has history has shown, some fans (and media) tend to hold a grudge when management does things that goes against their own beliefs.