It happens like clockwork before very NHL Entry Draft: Doubt seeps into the identity of the player who will go first overall, with Shane Wright supposedly set to drop at the 2022 edition of the event July 7-8.
This time around there shouldn’t be any question, though. Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes will almost certainly pick Shane Wright. While nothing is ever a guarantee, here are four reasons it is as close to one as possible:
Canadiens Need a Center
It should come as no surprise, but the Canadiens are fairly weak at center. There was actually a period a short while ago when that wasn’t the case, after decades of struggling to find a legitimate No. 1 center. It’s probably little coincidence that time coincided with their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2021, with Nick Suzuki, Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi down the middle, for a legitimate 1, 2, 3 punch.
However, Danault left for the Los Angeles Kings last offseason and Kotkaniemi the Carolina Hurricanes. Kotkaniemi’s replacement, Christian Dvorak served as a short-term upgrade, but he’s left a lot to be desired as far a top-six centers go. There’s also a sharp drop-off from Dvorak to Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling, without anyone else in the organization projected to make an impact down the middle, making a center, like Wright, the logical selection.
The Canadiens admittedly have holes throughout the lineup. They’re bare on the right side on defense, especially if Jeff Petry were to leave, and, with Carey Price’s future uncertain, they are unofficially searching for a No. 1 goalie too. However, there aren’t any players who fill either of those positions who are projected to go so much as in the top three.
True, the Canadiens do need a winger to play with Suzuki and Cole Caufield on the first line. That might be Juraj Slafkovsky, but the simple fact of the matter is it might not either. Centers are also just way more valuable than wingers. Plus the Canadiens don’t exactly have shortage of wingers right now.
Going winger instead of center right now, especially with Slafkovsky far from certainly superior to Wright, would be like going for the mystery door instead of a brand new sedan, when you’re in the market for a car. It could be a Porsche instead, but it could also be a bike. Why take the risk? No one in their right mind would.
Wright the Best Fit at Center for Canadiens
Ultimately, the Canadiens’ decision should come down to Wright and Logan Cooley, the other top center available. In a recent TSN poll of NHL head scouts, Wright got six out of nine votes to stay at first overall. Slafkovsky got two and Cooley got one.
In the interest of full disclosure, the race isn’t so much a runaway as it appears. It’s actually tightening, as Wright got nine votes (out of 10) to go first in a similar poll at the start of the year. However, he’s clearly still the favorite.
Assuming Slafkovsky is out of the picture based on what the Canadiens actually need (see the point immediately above), why Wright over Cooley? This is where the debate gets interesting, because Cooley is by all accounts a solid choice. Even though Wright has more size (6-foot-0, 191 pounds vs. 5-foot-10, 174 pounds), Cooley plays more of a power-forward game.
Nevertheless, Wright remains a game-breaker according to the same report. Furthermore, the way Wright models his game after Patrice Bergeron’s might just make the difference in the eyes of general manager Kent Hughes, who had the Boston Bruins standout as a client during his days as an agent.
In fact, Hughes spoke to that comparison during his media availability after having won the NHL Draft Lottery. He said the Canadiens would be very happy if they are lucky enough to draft a player who has had as much of an impact on the Bruins as Bergeron. All by itself, that assertion means nothing, but combined with the fact Wright has been the prized prospect of this free agent class for literally years and there is no real choice.
True, it’s all about how prospects develop leading up to being drafted, but, unless you’re actively looking for excuses not to pick Wright, he still put up 94 points in 63 games this past Ontario Hockey League season. The next-highest ranked draft-eligible OHL center, Luca Del Bel Belluz? Seventy-six points in 68 games.
Even Wright’s relatively “low” total is explainable, as the Kingston Frontenacs played him with rookies to help acclimate them, according to head coach Luca Caputi. His playoffs may have ended prematurely, with a five-game Round 2 loss, but the Frontenacs had been underdogs against the North Bay Battalion. Plus Wright was still the leading scorer among players his age at the time of elimination.
If you’re going to indict him for a single playoff performance, during which he still showed up, there’s a whole list of star NHLers who apparently wouldn’t make good Canadiens, including half the Toronto Maple Leafs. But, because Wright is 18, it’s clearly all right to put the fortunes of his entire team right on a single person’s shoulders. Please, in the comments section, feel free to clarify how that logic tracks.
Maybe it’s how many people assume a first-overall pick should be a generational talent and the fact Wright hasn’t dominated like Sidney Crosby is a red flag. It’s not. Few if any credible sources are suggesting Wright will ever enter into the discussion of the best players in the NHL, but that’s true of everyone else this year. There is however a realistic possibility Wright becomes the best player on the Habs, based on his player profile. That’s still a perfectly good get for first overall, no?
Canadiens Keeping First Overall
Ultimately, Wright is the only real choice to go at No. 1. Not only is he the closest consensus to the top pick available, but he’s also the best fit for the Canadiens. On the off chance the Canadiens don’t like Wright, they do have the option of trading down, but that’s all it is: an option, and one that will never come to fruition.
From an asset-management perspective, it might make sense to trade down to No. 2, for example. That way, Hughes assures himself of acquiring at least one of the top centers in the draft, while securing another asset or two. That’s just logic. There’s no disputing it. However, logic tends to fly out the window once consideration for fans enters into the picture.
With the draft taking place in Montreal, Hughes’ job is not only to make a selection that will better his team, but ensure everyone goes home happy. That means keeping first overall and sticking to the script, i.e., picking Wright all the while. If he were to deviate from that plan at all, he’d effectively be ensuring he starts off his first complete season as an NHL GM with the majority of fans and members of the media against him. He got this job because he’s smarter than that.
Hughes’ Sense of Self-Preservation as GM
No one is suggesting Wright is hands-down the best player available. There are no guarantees to that effect. Anyone who suggests either Wright or someone else is absolutely going to develop into the best player drafted this year is claiming to be able to predict 10 years into the future. Determine for yourselves whether or not that is possible.
Assuming it isn’t, instead consider what almost everyone has been saying, how Wright is simply the safest pick available, based on a simple risk-reward analysis. As it stands, he’s also widely considered to be the best player available, with perhaps the highest floor of anyone in contention to be taken first. All that means is, if he doesn’t reach his potential, the Canadiens are still going to get a very good player.
Logically speaking, you’re not supposed to swing for the fences with the first pick you’ve got. You’re going to go for the sure thing. And, when you add up all the contributing factors that make Wright a good fit with the Habs, i.e., the need for a center, his two-way game, etc., the selection just makes sense.
Are there questions about Wright’s game? Certainly, but the fact that he’s the top projected pick this close to the Draft means there are questions about everyone else’s games too. There are just fewer questions about his, justifiably making this the Shane Wright Draft for all intents and purposes.
Hughes’ heart may not be on Wright, but, for him to pick anyone else at this point, he’d have to be 100% sure that this hypothetical other guy pans out, and Hughes isn’t. No one is. So, if Hughes deviates from the aforementioned plan, he’s putting his reputation on the line and risks being the GM who didn’t draft Wright, if Wright does in fact end up being the best player to be drafted.
On the other hand, if he picks Wright and Wright doesn’t live up to his potential? Everyone will just see Wright as another player to not meet expectations. The blame will more so be on him than Hughes, but, even then, you’re realistically still talking about a second-line center the Canadiens desperately need. Hughes simply can’t lose by picking Wright. He has everything to lose by picking someone else.
Hughes is still finding his way as GM. He doesn’t have the reputation of many of his peers, even if his moves so far, like at the last trade deadline, have been generally good. He’s simply not in a position where he would stick his neck out for his first-ever draft pick, with his predecessor, Marc Bergevin, infamously going with his scouts as a rookie when he picked Alex Galchenyuk in 2012.
In truth, Galchenyuk was a risky pick and Morgan Rielly would have made more long-term sense for the Habs, but that just plays more into why the Habs, as an organization, will go the safest route here. They cannot afford to screw this pick up, in Montreal of all places. Everyone will have learned from their mistakes and will realize Wright is the center they need. If Hughes makes any other decision, he’ll be begging for second guesses, not just with regard to the pick itself but his competency as a GM.
Welcome to Montreal, I guess. Same goes for Wright, July 7.