Canadiens’ opportunity to draft first overall at home beyond exciting

The Hockey Central panel discuss the Montreal Canadiens winning the first overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, the draft being held on the Canadiens' home ice, and potential top pick Shane Wright's fit in Montreal.

MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens. Drafting first overall. In Montreal.

In a word? Exciting.

“It’s exciting for us as a management group,” said Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes via Zoom, just moments after it was revealed the club that finished last in the standings cashed on the NHL’s best odds to make the first pick in 2022.

“It’s certainly exciting for us as an organization,” Hughes continued. “I remember the last time the draft was in Montreal (in 2009), and it was a packed house. That isn’t the case in every draft location, so especially with us owning the first pick I can only imagine the buildup of anticipation and excitement and interest in the Montreal Canadiens. You hope as an organization that you don’t pick No. 1 too often, but when you’re in that situation, it’s pretty special.”

Rare, too.

The Canadiens haven’t been in this situation since 1980, and they’re the first team since the Toronto Maple Leafs (in 1985) to be in that position at home.

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Apologies to their fans for not being able to report as of this moment when tickets go on sale, how to get them and how much they’ll cost.

Though, we sincerely doubt they care at the moment. They suffered through the pain of one of the worst seasons in franchise history, begged for the team to make it all worth this down the stretch — with the Canadiens winning more games than expected before dropping nine in a row and securing 32nd place after the penultimate game of the season — and they probably stopped breathing throughout what had to feel like the longest commercial break of all time on Tuesday before the top-three picks were revealed.

Nothing in the projected order had changed until the New Jersey Devils leapt from the fifth spot into the top two and dropped the Seattle Kraken down to four and the Philadelphia Flyers down to five. We had our balcony door open as NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly announced the Canadiens landed the top pick and we swear we heard what sounded like an entire city sighing in relief.

Now Montrealers have just under two months to wait and see how Hughes navigates his biggest decision yet as GM.

You didn’t think he’d tell you what his plan was on this night, did you?

“I don’t think I want to answer right now,” Hughes said about the pending selection. “I’ll wait until July 7. I’m not tipping my hat right now.”

In an interview with NHL Network immediately after the results were read, Hughes offered some more tidbits on one particular trait the Canadiens will be coveting with this selection.

“I think if it’s anything, it’s character,” Hughes said. “We’ve talked a lot about the culture that we need and you don’t have that type of culture as a team if you don’t have character in your players.”

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Shane Wright, who’s skated wire-to-wire this season as the consensus projected first overall pick, is oozing character — a player granted exceptional status to play in the Ontario Hockey League at 15, one who immediately became the youngest player in Canadian Hockey League history to wear a letter for his team, a top student in school and on the ice, and a producer of 32 goals and 94 points this season.

“His hockey IQ is through the roof,” said an NHL executive we touched base with Tuesday night. “He’s a leader, an elite talent, a great playmaker, a 200-foot player, and he can really shoot. For me, he’s the best player in this draft.”

There are others challenging for the title.

Perhaps Hughes, Canadiens executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton and the team’s amateur scouting staff feels it belongs to Logan Cooley — a five-foot-11, 175-pound forward who had 13 goals and 36 points in 24 games with the United States National Development team this past season. Maybe they feel it’s top-ranked European skater Juraj Slafkovsky, who vaulted into position with an explosive, seven-goal performance for Slovakia at the Olympics and held his own with TPS Turku in the Finnish Liiga. Or maybe they have their eyes on someone else entirely.

The Montreal management group will fly to Helsinki this week to take in the world championships to continue their evaluation. They’ll tune into Wright via video, as he continues to lead the Kingston Frontenacs through the OHL playoffs after having already collected 10 points in his first eight games.

No matter which way they lean, this decision isn’t likely to be made based on need, nor should it be considering the last-place Canadiens have needs at virtually every position.

“I think you always go pure evaluation first,” said Hughes. “So, if there’s a player that we feel is the best available player in the draft, then that’s the player that we’re going to go with. And if there are different shades of the same colour, in our opinion, could we value one because of positional need? Yes, certainly.

“But we’re not at that point yet, so I couldn’t really tell you whether that’s the case, whether we feel there are multiple players that are within the same ballpark.”

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He said he and Gorton will lean on Nick Bobrov, Martin Lapointe and the Canadiens’ scouting staff and that they hope to find consensus with them over the coming weeks.

“They’ve been doing it all year,” Hughes added. “In a lot of the cases, they’ve been watching these players for two years, maybe even three years.

“We’ll encourage debate and all work towards a resolution. But we’ve got to trust the people who are in place, and we have confidence in them.”

It would be shocking if Hughes wasn’t going to give them the opportunity to draft first overall, even if he said, “You’re always better off listening to everyone,” when he was asked if he’d field offers from other teams to move out of top position.

“We’ll listen if we get calls, but we’re not planning on trading,” Hughes added.

Anything can happen, but we’d bet our savings on him not deviating from the expected course.

This is an opportunity to accelerate the build Hughes has been charged with since his hire in January, an opportunity to do it right at home — with thousands of Canadiens in attendance preparing to explode in jubilation — and an opportunity that this franchise hasn’t had in 42 years.

The word “exciting” might not even do this situation justice. This feels bigger than just exciting.

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