As soon as the Montreal Canadiens emerged victorious from the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery, many were quick to crown center Shane Wright as the next Habs star – but is the first overall pick truly a foregone conclusion? Wright is the consensus top player in the draft, but is not quite the homerun prospect that leads some draft classes. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman and Max Bultman sat down with Montreal beat writers Arpon Basu and Marc Antoine Godin on The Athletic Hockey Show and the group did not reach the same consensus that Wright will absolutely be selected first overall. Of course, Wright is certainly the favorite; the Kingston Frontenacs captain does everything well and plays a mature, two-way, team-first game that is always attractive in a young player. Wright recorded 94 points in 63 games in the OHL this season even after not playing last season during the league’s closure. Wright’s development and ability are not in question and, though every team wants a franchise center, Montreal does have an immediate need of a top-six center and Wright could be ready to go. With all that being said, the group discussed that Wright did not exactly shatter scoring expectations this season and his inconsistent effort at times has drawn criticism. It begs the question that if Wright is not an elite offense talent and doesn’t possess an elite work ethic, is there more upside elsewhere on the board?
Another center option could be USNTDP standout Logan Cooley, and while he won’t play in the NHL next season as he heads to the University of Minnesota, there is also some belief that Wright could also return to junior next year due to his lost season in 2020-21. Cooley is also a two-way pivot with a well-rounded game and a minority of pundits feel he does have more offensive potential than Wright. The group also mentioned that a future top-pair defenseman is a need for the Canadiens and Simon Nemec or David Jiricek could meet that description. However, neither appears to be in the mix for first overall and the Habs are almost certainly not going to trade down from No. 1 in a draft hosted in Montreal. As such, the group lands on upstart winger Juraj Slafkovsky as the most likely alternative to Wright as the Canadiens’ top choice. Though wingers are largely considered to be less valuable than centers, Slafkovsky’s draft stock has skyrocketed this season to a point where it would not be as great a shock to see him surpass Wright. The big Slovakian forward is arguably the more dynamic offensive player and even more he has proven it at a number of levels this year. Slafkovsky recorded 10 points in 31 games plus seven points in 18 playoff games with TPS in the Liiga, Finland’s top pro league. He added 18 points in 11 games with their U-20 team. Yet it is internationally where he really shined; Slafkovsky was named MVP of the Olympic tournament with seven goals in seven games for Slovakia and then recorded nine points in eight games at the World Championship (where Habs GM Kent Hughes was reportedly scouting him.)
Hughes and company also present an interesting twist in the decision at No. 1. Hughes and Director of Hockey Operations Jeff Gorton are both new to Montreal, as are head coach Martin St. Louis and highly valued advisor Vincent Lecavalier. Not only are they playing catch-up on draft analysis, but they are also bringing new and potentially contrary viewpoints from the existing scouting and analytics staffs for the Canadiens. The group opined that the odds of all of these key decision makers being in agreement on the pick is unlikely, and if Wright is not the top option for Hughes or Gorton then that certainly opens up the conversation. It is worth noting that Hughes, Gorton, and St. Louis all have close ties to USA Hockey, which could be a boost for Cooley, while their scouting department is majority European, which could benefit Slafkovsky.
At the end of the day, Wright remains the heavy favorite to be selected first overall, as he has all season. However, it is not the guarantee that it is in some seasons or that many expected it to be this year – and it worth knowing that other options exist. With the 2022 NHL Draft being held in Montreal, the drama around the Canadiens’ top pick will be entertaining at the very least and the reaction should they take Slafkovsky or Cooley instead of Wright will be fascinating. Montreal is in difficult shape with an expensive, veteran lineup that did not produce this season and certainly cannot afford to miss on this pick.