Wouldn’t you know it — the Montreal Canadiens finish dead last and there’s no clear-cut generational player waiting to be pounced upon with the first overall pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft.
But with the odds of the Habs claiming the top spot in Tuesday’s draw to determine the draft order at 25.5 percent and the odds of dropping to third — as low as the last-place team can now fall in the annual draft lottery — an uncomfortable 55 percent, falling out of the top spot wouldn’t be as devastating as it might have been in years when franchise cornerstones like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, or Sidney Crosby were up for grabs.
There’s also another factor that makes falling in this year’s draft less of a catastrophe than many previous years — the media pundits all seem to be in agreement that while there’s a clear-cut favourite to be taken first overall, the gap between Kingston Frontenacs centre Shane Wright — projected to go first overall since coming into the OHL at 15 as an exceptional player — and another half-dozen or so blue-chip prospects just isn’t great enough for serious disappointment if the Habs have to pick second or even third.
And, as luck would have it, the best prospects at the top of the draft play positions that would help balance out an already pretty good Montreal Canadiens prospects pool that is strong in other areas.
If the Habs do win the first overall pick in the lottery, the 6’2”, 185-lb. Wright is still the smart choice, pretty much guaranteed to become a quality top-six centre along the lines of Habs number one centre Nick Suzuki, with a similar complete 200-foot game based on elite hockey sense and vision to go with excellent skating, a hard and accurate shot, and crisp passing.
But if the Canadiens fall to number two or even sink to the three spot, there’s another very good scoring line centre prospect to consider, along with a couple of unicorns – right-handed defencemen with top-pairing potential – and an almost equally rare true power forward.
If Wright is off the board, 5’ 11”, 175-lb. American centreman Logan Cooley, fresh from the U18 Worlds where Team USA won the silver medal and he was named to the tournament All-Star team, would be a fine consolation prize. Committed to the University of Minnesota in the fall, the Pittsburgh native also projects to be a well-rounded, all-zones scoring line centre who could fill that role on a good NHL team for the next decade.
And if both Wright and Cooley are off the board when it’s Montreal’s turn to pick, management might decide to go in another direction and still come out of the draft with real value for their lottery pick.
They could jump in on one of the two clear-cut high-end defence prospects in the draft. One is a Czech and the other a Slovak, and there doesn’t appear to be a great deal to pick between them. Conveniently, both shoot right, so either player would be a welcome addition to a Canadiens prospect pool overflowing with quality lefthanders on the back end but a bit light on right-shooting d-men with clear NHL potential.
Simon Nemec has been playing with the men in the Slovak Extraliga for the past two seasons and the 6’1”, 195-lb. defender has risen high in the 2022 rankings with a dynamic two-way game that features good hockey sense, strong skating, and excellent puckhandling skills. Nemec has plenty of international experience, having played in the past two World Junior Championships as well as winning a bronze medal with Slovakia in the recent Olympic tournament. A season in Laval would likely be enough to prepare the 18-year-old defender for full-time NHL duty.
David Jiricek, 18, would perhaps be rated a bit higher than Nemec, but the rangy Czech defender suffered an untimely knee injury at the WJC. Already back in action, the 6’3”, 190-lb. Klatovy native has played a strong two-way game for HC Skoda Plzen in the Czech Extraliga for the past two seasons and shows NHL top-pairing potential. A heavy point shot, a physical style of play, and a strong transition game point the way to a two-way defenceman who can play at the top of a good NHL lineup.
Or perhaps the Canadiens might decide to roll the dice with their lottery pick and go with an outlier who has been rising through the draft ranking at a meteoric pace since mid-season.
Juraj Slafkovsky may have started the year on the fringes of the top 10, but the 6’ 4”, 220-lb. Slovak winger had a breakout two weeks at the Beijing Olympics, being named tournament MVP after scoring seven goals in seven games for the bronze medal-winning Slovaks.
For the past two seasons, Slafkovsky has played for TPS in the Finnish Liiga where he has had the opportunity to grow into the role of a legitimate NHL-calibre power forward with high-end offensive skill and the physical game to match. Players with this combination of size, strength, and skill are very rare, so the 19-year-old Slovak won’t be available for long on day one of the July draft.
In less than 24 hours, we’ll find out if the Montreal Canadiens will pick first, second, or third in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft in July, but, unlike in past years, no gnashing of teeth or rending of garments is likely to take place if the Habs don’t win the first overall pick.
It looks like the Canadiens won’t have trouble finding a player they like, no matter which slot they pick from.