BUFFALO, N.Y. — Shane Wright landed a steak dinner with the Montreal Canadiens at the NHL’s pre-draft combine this week. Juraj Slafkovský brought the sizzle.
Whatever attributes separate the two players considered to be the top-ranked prospects, a lack of self-confidence isn’t among them.
“I’m competitive. I always want to be first. I always want to be best,” Wright said Friday, when reminded of telling Canada’s TSN earlier in the week that he believed he “deserved to be the No. 1 pick.”
From Burlington, Ontario, the 18-year-old center is ranked first among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, and enjoyed the privilege of having dinner with the Canadiens, who own the first pick.
“I was about to order and I mentioned, `Hey, I was looking at the steak but it’s pretty expensive, $60 or something,‘” Wright said. “And they were like, `Ah, go ahead and have it.’ So I made sure it was all right before.”
None of that troubled Slafkovský, Central Scouting’s top-ranked international skater.
“That’s what he thinks,” Slafkovský said, referring to Wright’s comments. “I think something else.”
Slafkovský, from Slovakia, then broke into a beaming smile when asked how his interview went with the Canadiens by saying: “I didn’t have the dinner, but I think the talk we had was maybe, like to me, tasted better.”
Dinner aside, the Canadiens aren’t tipping their hand on which player they favor in preparing to host the two-day NHL draft July 7-8.
What’s become evident in recent weeks is the gap might well be closing between Wright, the Ontario Junior League player who has long been considered the favorite, and Slafkovský, a forward who turned heads in being named the Beijing Winter Games tournament MVP for helping Slovakia win a bronze medal — the nation’s first in Olympic competition.
And don’t discount the possibility of Logan Cooley entering the conversation. At 5-foot-10 and 174 pounds, Cooley is from Pittsburgh and ranked second among North American skaters after leading USA Hockey’s Under-18 development team in averaging 1.47 points per game by scoring 27 goals and 75 points in 51 outings.
Central Scouting chief Dan Marr considered Wright and Slafkovský as the two most NHL-ready prospects, before including Cooley as being someone who could make an impact down the road.
“The first three teams that pick in the draft could get the No. 1 player in the draft. It’s that tight,” Marr said. “So it depends on the club’s drafting philosophy and what they’re looking for.”
The New Jersey Devils have the second pick, with Arizona, Seattle and Philadelphia rounding out the top five.
At 6-feet and 191 pounds, Wright is coming off a season in which he finished eighth in the OHL with 94 points (32 goals, 62 assists) in 63 games. He was the OHL and Canadian Hockey League’s rookie of the year in 2019-20, and after becoming just the OHL’s fifth player to be granted exceptional status to play junior at 15.
And he excelled on the international stage, by scoring a Hockey Canada Under-18 record nine goals in just five games in leading his nation to a gold medal in 2021.
Wright has drawn comparisons to Boston Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron, with Central Scouting referring to him as having the “potential to be a star in the NHL and become the the type of player you can build a team around.”
Slafkovskýy has gradually evolved into an elite prospect over the past 13 months, in which he’s represented Slovakia at the Olympics, two world championships, and spent last season playing for TPS in Finland’s Elite League.
After failing to score a goal at the 2021 worlds, Slafkovský scored seven in Beijing to finish tied for the Olympic tournament lead. He then had three goals and nine points in eight games at the world championships in Finland last month.
At 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds, Slafkovský is a stick-handling force in driving to the net, and also capable of making deft passes to set up teammates.
“I think it was a lot about confidence at the end of the day because I knew I can play hockey already but I just didn’t show it,” Slafkovsky said of his jump in production. “At the Olympics, my confidence was pretty high, so I think it was more about that I needed to trust myself.”
His confidence has grown to believe he should have the edge over other prospects.
“I played men’s last season and … more guys played junior. It’s a little bit better preparation in my opinion,” Slafkovský said.