Rather than tip his hand on who the Montreal Canadiens plan to select with the first pick in the NHL draft, general manager Kent Hughes joked they’ll end up with all three of Shane Wright, Juraj Slafkovsky and Logan Cooley.
If the Canadiens want to make a splash, they could end up with two of them.
There’s uncertainly surrounding who’s going No. 1 for the first time in nearly a decade, when the Colorado Avalanche chose Nathan MacKinnon in 2013. In the aftermath of MacKinnon leading the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup, the Canadiens are confronted with a potentially franchise-changing decision in their first time picking first in 42 years and as the hosts of the draft in Montreal.
“If there was any one player with a perfect track record, it would be a pretty simple decision and we probably would have already declared what we were going to do,” Hughes said Wednesday. “Everything we can know, whether it’s Shane or Logan or Juraj, we want to know to what extent they will be able to live with the pressure of playing in Montreal.”
Wright for years has been playing with pressure, in the microscope in the Ontario Hockey League as the long-projected top pick in this draft. He put up 94 points in 63 games of junior hockey this past season.
The Canadian center believes he’s NHL-ready and wants the pressure of getting picked first overall by the Canadiens at Bell Centre 51 years after they selected Guy LaFleur in the same slot.
“I’m competitive,” Wright said. “I always want to be first, I always want to be the best. I think no matter what position you’re in, no matter where you’re ranked, it’s always your goal and you always want to be first. You want to be that first guy chosen and that’s always been my mindset.”
Dan Marr, head of NHL Central Scouting, has said Wright and Slafkosky, a big forward from Slovakia, are the most likely prospects to play in the league next season. Slafkovsky has drawn comparisons to late Hall of Famer Clark Gillies and was named most outstanding player at the Olympics after scoring seven goals in seven games.
Slafkovsky repeated Wednesday he would be good fit on left wing with Montreal centers Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. Asked if the Canadiens were going to take him, the charismatic 18-year-old responded: “I don’t know. You need to ask them.”
Because Hughes isn’t telling, the teams with the next few picks have to get ready for multiple scenarios. The New Jersey Devils took a significant amount of calls about trading the second pick, but they’re prepared to make it depending on what Montreal does before them.
“We’ve got it mapped out,” GM Tom Fitzgerald said. “At the end of the day, Montreal’s going to pick a player and then we’re going to have a decision to make.”
The Arizona Coyotes pick third, the Seattle Kraken fourth and Philadelphia Flyers fifth. Arizona may have a tough choice between Cooley, an American center from Pittsburgh, and Cutter Gauthier, who grew up in the Phoenix area.
The dominos beginning with the top pick could take the draft in many different directions.
“Obviously we’ll cross four names off before we call a name, assuming we stay at 5,” Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher said. “I can see scenarios when nearly every player there could be available at 5.”
There’s also a scenario in which the Devils could do something surprising, given Czech defenseman David Jiricek and Slafkovsky Olympic teammate Simon Nemec are also in the top tier of available prospects. Much like nine years ago when long-projected top pick Seth Jones fell to four, that could happen to Wright.
Or Wright could go first, like most in hockey have been expecting for some time.
“There’s no clear-cut No. 1,” Fitzgerald said. “The majority of years you’ve had someone, so that’s why it’s unique. They’re all really good players, a lot of different positions. But they all may end up being the same at the end of the day with all having similar ceilings in our opinion.”