The first in-person NHL Draft since the pandemic began is being hosted by the Montreal Canadiens July 7-8. The last time that city hosted the draft was in 2009 when John Tavares went first overall to the Islanders, followed by Victor Hedman to Tampa Bay, Matt Duchene to Colorado and Evander Kane to the Atlanta Thrashers.
Montreal chose Louis Leblanc 18th overall and, unfortunately, it was a pick that never panned out. This time, though, they’ll have the first pick overall at their hosted draft and a chance to add a real impact player.
Habs fans have to feel like they have been riding a roller coaster the past couple seasons. First the pandemic. Then a surprise run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. Then an unbelievably turbulent ride that was the 2021-22 season.
Thankfully there’s a silver lining.
Starting with Montreal at the top, here’s an early look at the potential draft targets for the four Canadian lottery teams, with Ottawa picking seventh, Winnipeg 14 and Vancouver 15, and what strategic discussions to consider at each of those draft slots.
MONTREAL CANADIENS, FIRST OVERALL PICK
Shane Wright, C, Kingston (OHL), 6-foot-1, 191 pounds
Logan Cooley, C, USNTDP, 5-foot-10, 174 pounds
Juraj Slavkovsky, W, TPS Turku (Liiga), 6-foot-4, 218 pounds
Three high-end prospects. All with different qualities.
First and second line centremen are worth their weight in gold. They are nearly impossible to acquire via trades unless you are willing to give up significant assets or draft capital. When teams have an opportunity to select a top-six centre they have to take advantage.
Slafkovsky doesn’t fit the strategy. He’s a big, strong, streaky scoring winger who has played to his identity. A top five pick in this draft. Likely a top three pick. The Coyotes hold the third overall pick and Slafkovsky would complement a player like Clayton Keller.
The decision doesn’t get any easier however. The Habs will be staring at either Wright or Cooley.
Shane Wright has been the consensus No. 1 for as long as prognosticators have been preparing for this draft, but it hasn’t been a smooth ride this season. I appreciate his 200-foot game. He doesn’t just bring offence. Wright can log big minutes at even strength, on the power play, at 4-on-4, 3-on-3, and the PK. He has elite puck touch and the ability to make plays on both his forehand and backhand. When he is fully engaged there is little to not like about his game. Wright has the potential to be a complete player. He’s the captain in Kingston and carries a 90 per cent average in the classroom. In short there are no red flags character wise.
My singular concern is his consistency. There are nights he dominates for 60 minutes. There are also nights he starts on time and sets the tone in the first 20 minutes. There are also nights he goes long stretches without playing to his standard. As he matures, he will need to work on his inconsistencies.
Cooley is a different prospect than Wright. Don’t be fooled by the difference in size between these two players. Cooley is one of the most competitive players in this draft class. When you combine his elite puck skill, hockey sense, quickness and drive he easily becomes part of the conversation for the No. 1 overall selection.
I’ve gone back and forth with my strategy. I originally came up with some trade scenarios but, in the end, none made enough sense.
At the end of my process, I felt like I was splitting hairs on Wright and Cooley from a skill perspective. The trump card for me came down to my comfort level with consistency and compete.
The Pick: Logan Cooley
OTTAWA SENATORS, SEVENTH OVERALL PICK
The pick: Jonathan Lekkerimaki, W, Djurgarden (SHL), 5-foot-11, 165 pounds
Sooner than later the Senators are going to turn the corner and become a consistent playoff team. Their scouting staff has done a great job of stocking the cupboards and GM Pierre Dorion has said he is looking to add to the core group with some impactful veterans. The time has come for the organization to take the next step.
And they'll have a chance to select another core piece for their puzzle with the No. 7 slot at the draft.
A winger, Lekkerimaki isn’t as tenacious or detailed as some of the other forwards the Senators have on their NHL roster and pipeline. He will bring pure offence and contribute on the power play. When the Sens need a big goal or play offensively this kid will answer the bell. Someone else on his line will do the heavy lifting. He will do the scoring.
WINNIPEG JETS, 14TH OVERALL PICK
The middle of the first round will be volatile. Winnipeg will be getting calls for this pick and they might even be making calls to move up. Let’s assume they are picking at 14, though. For me it’s always a “best player available” approach. In this area there are several players who bring similar elements.
Marco Kasper, FWD, Rogle (SHL), 6-foot-1, 183 pounds
Frank Nazar, FWD, USNTDP, 5-foot-10, 175 pounds
If Kasper is still available here he would be a fantastic pick for the Jets. A responsible player who is used primarily at even strength and on the power play in the SHL this year for Rogle. On the PP he is willing to work pucks off the boards and go to the net for rebounds and tips. Off the rush when he gets a lane, he has shown he can shoot the puck and score from distance. He’s a natural centreman who has shown he can play the wing this year playing with men in the SHL.
As for Nazar, I believe he will be available in this slot.
This kid just looks like a Winnipeg Jet prospect to me. An underdog who has had to work for everything he has earned over the years. He’s never been the most sexy player on his teams growing up and knows the path to success comes through hard work, determination, and most importantly dedication. He can play up and down the lineup. He’s uber-competitive, plays quick and fast, goes to the net, and has proven down the stretch this season he has better skill than first advertised. He does have a bit of a hectic approach at times, but there is no question he would bring the kind of reliable game the Jets covet.
The Pick: Marco Kasper
Kasper is ahead of Nazar on my list. The draft floor is no place to second guess your process. If Kasper is gone, though, I go to the next name and it’s Nazar.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS, 15TH OVERALL PICK
The Canucks will have options in this slot. There is potential for some names to drop into their lap if they surprisingly fall in the draft. A few other names come on the board naturally in the middle of the first round.
Conor Geekie, C, Winnipeg (WHL), 6-foot-3, 196 pounds
Noah Ostlund, C, Djurgarden (SHL), 5-foot-11, 163 pounds
Kevin Korchinski, D, Seattle (WHL), 6-foot-2, 185 pounds
Geekie is an interesting name to keep an eye on. His Winnipeg Ice team are in the middle of a potentially deep playoff run so he will have more opportunity to impress scouts in high leverage games. The extra viewings have potential to impact his draft slot both positively and negatively. I don’t see him dropping to this slot, but if he does the Canucks will have a chance to add a big body centreman with plus hands, vision, release and overall three-zone awareness.
Ostlund and Team Sweden won gold at the recent U18 World Championship and he was excellent. He’s not the biggest or heaviest player, but he brings very good skill and outstanding compete. An infectious player who doesn’t quit in any zone. I’m not concerned about his stature because he has time to add weight and muscle to his frame. He’s a crafty playmaker on the PP, drives the play offensively. In time he would complement a player like Vasily Podkolzin.
Korchinski is a minute muncher who can be used in all situations. He brings size, length, and consistent compete. He’s not the prettiest player to watch in motion, but his skating stride doesn’t hold him back. A distributor more than a shooter, he can run the PP effectively. His 61 regular season assists is an impressive number. The fact he can be deployed in a variety of roles in addition to his offensive upside makes him an attractive target.
The Pick: Kevin Korchinski
If Geekie falls into their lap the Canucks would be wise to draft him. However, the more likely scenario is that it comes down to a choice between Ostlund and Korchinski. I'd take Korchinski in Vancouver.
This draft is going to have some wild cards. Some teams will be shying away from Russian-born players due to circumstances beyond the control of the players. It only takes one pick to interrupt the flow of the first round, though. For example, if Danila Yurov goes earlier than expected, or starts to slide, it trickles into the draft floor strategies of each team.
I anticipate this draft to have many moving parts. Central Registry and whoever is announcing transactions, in addition to draft picks, could be in for a busy 48 hours.