On the Fourth of July, Montreal Canadiens GM Kent Hughes spoke with the media in advance of hosting the 2022 NHL Draft (which begins on Thursday, in Montreal, where the Habs own the first overall pick).
Kinda fun, right? The home team gets to dictate the beginning of the draft with the No. 1 pick.
Montreal has three options in most people’s minds: Shane Wright, Juraj Slafkovsky or Logan Cooley. Wright and Cooley have primarily been centers thus far in their careers, while Slafkovsky is considered the most NHL-ready player in the draft and is a big winger.
And for months, the assumption has been that the Canadiens would take the somewhat-local Wright with the first pick.
But now… the number one pick selection is about as clear as mud. And Hughes didn’t help that at all in his comments on Monday.
“Players are playing in different leagues at different levels of hockey and we’re trying to look at them and say this guy is able to do this at this level,” Hughes said on Monday. “Can he do it at the next level? So there’s a hockey component to it, too, there’s a positional component. There’s all these things that we’re evaluating. Can he play at that position at the next level?”
“But we’ll also remain open-minded here and flexible in terms of is it the right situation for them?” Hughes continued. “Most No. 1 picks end up playing in the National Hockey League. But that doesn’t mean that has to be the case. Ultimately, we don’t need the best 18-year-old. We need somebody that can become the best (at ages) 22, 24, 25 … and we will try to take those steps.”
There is a significant school of thought that Hughes’ comments on Monday were the new Montreal GM floating a trial balloon to gauge the reaction of fans in the market to the potential that he doesn’t pick Wright. And a growing number of analysts have actually moved Slafkovsky into the top spot of their final draft rankings, including Bob McKenzie (aka the Godfather).
So why do we care about Montreal’s indecision about the top overall pick?
Because one of the teams with which the Blackhawks are reportedly discussing a potential trade for Alex DeBrincat sits at No. 2 overall — the New Jersey Devils. And who comes off the board at No. 1 could shift their focus with that pick from the best available player to the best player right now.
Strength at center is a need for most NHL teams, but the Devils have done well to bring in quality NHL pivots in recent years and have pretty impressive depth at the position right now. Nico Hischier, their captain, is only 22. Jack Hughes is 20. Dawson Mercer is 19. Michael McLeod is 23. The “old man” in the group is Pavel Zacha, who’s 24. And there are a few more young centers coming up in their system.
If Montreal opts to select Slafkovsky first, New Jersey’s best options at No. 2 would be Wright or Cooley — both centers. That might lead to an increased willingness to move the pick in a blockbuster deal for a player like DeBrincat.
And we might not know what the Canadiens are going to do until the card is turned in on Thursday night. So stay tuned, fans… this could be a wild week.