MONTREAL — Kent Hughes has yet to decide on the first pick at the 2022 NHL draft.
The prospects in the running, meanwhile, have no clue if they’ll be selected No. 1.
There’s plenty of intrigue heading into Thursday’s first round at the Bell Centre, where the host Montreal Canadiens hold the trump card.
And while Hughes, the team’s general manager, has narrowed down the direction the Original Six franchise will go with the top choice to three players, that’s as much as he’s willing share in terms of identifying the teenager set to be placed under the microscope in one of the sport’s most intense markets.
“We’re not just evaluating hockey players,” Hughes explained earlier this week. “We’re evaluating character, we’re trying to evaluate their ability to deal with that type of pressure on a consistent basis.”
Barring a trade, the decision will come down Shane Wright, Juraj Slafkovsky and Logan Cooley.
Wright was the presumptive first pick in his draft class after being granted exceptional status to play in the Ontario Hockey League with the Kingston Frontenacs a year early at age 15.
But the pandemic, which cost the Burlington, Ont., native his entire 2020-21 season, and a disappointing follow-up campaign once he returned to the ice last fall, coupled with Slafkovsky’s rise at the Olympics and world championships, has muddied the waters.
“I know what jersey I want to be putting over my head,” Wright said Wednesday. “But at the end of day it’s not my decision.
“You want to be one. You want to be the guy chosen first. I want to be the first pick.”
The 18-year-old — still NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American skater heading into Thursday that will see the New Jersey Devils pick second and the Arizona Coyotes select third — has had the eyes of the scouting world on him the last three seasons.
His game was analyzed, picked apart and dissected, especially over the last nine months.
“It was tough,” said Wright, who didn’t have a great 2021-22, but still had 94 points in 63 regular-season contests. “I have experience with the pressures and expectation before, but not to that extent, not to that level that it was this year.
“Some tough times for sure, but I had an unreal support group around me.”
Wright has been under intense scrutiny, while the easy-going Slafkovsky’s gone about his business in a year where he led the Olympic tournament with seven goals in seven games for Slovakia.
“At the end of the day, I think it’s doesn’t really matter,” NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked European skater said when asked about going No. 1. “When I’m retired, I want to be the best player from this draft.
“It doesn’t matter — one, two or three.”
But are the Canadiens going to take the big winger?
“I don’t know,” Slafkovsky answered with a grin. “You need to ask them.”
Cooley, a centre with the U.S. national team development program, said it’s hard to not focus on where he’ll end up.
“It’s pretty stressful,” said the No. 2 North American skater. “But also it’s a fun time, you have to enjoy it.”
“That whole part of the process is pretty cool,” said winger Cutter Gauthier, who’s slotted in a spot behind Cooley, his USNTDP teammate. “If you knew where you’re going to go it wouldn’t be as fun.”
Only the Canadiens know how things will fall into place, but it feels like the decision is between Wright and Slafkovsky.
The former would give Montreal a solid secondary centre option behind Nick Suzuki, while latter has already mused about how he would fit on a line with the team’s No. 1 option down the middle and sniper Cole Caufield on the opposite flank.
“I’m someone who wants to win,” Wright said. “I’m a guy who is going to bring that attitude, is going to bring that mentality every single day. I want to win Stanley Cups. My goal coming to the NHL is to win team championships.”
“I think it can fit well and we can make results,” Slafkovsky said in making his case.
“But we will see.”
The players are excited to hear their names called and find out where they’ll end up.
It’s also clear they’re anxious to pivot back to focusing on the ice.
“I just cannot wait until it’s all over and (I) can go to the team,” Slafkovsky said. “It’s all over my head now.”
“All the works done,” Wright said. “I’ve played the hockey, I’ve done the interviews, I’ve done all that. At this point, it’s out of my control.
“There’s nothing more I can do.”
It’s now up to the Canadiens to make the call.