MONTREAL — The thing about the host team, the Canadiens, holding the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft is that things will be amped up to 11, with a particular French twist to the entire proceedings.
Case in point: Shane Wright, the prospective top pick when the draft commences Thursday night, was asked Wednesday morning, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, whether he had looked for an apartment in the city yet. (He has not).
Wright, a center from Burlington, Ontario, was the surefire No. 1 when last season commenced, with all the trappings that come with being in such a position. But after a season in whicn he repeatedly said, “I expect better things out of myself,” and in which Slovakian winger Juraj Slafkovsky dominated the international stage, there is a real question as to what the Canadiens will do in front of their hometown fans.
Wright is still considered the favorite to go No. 1. He plays the more valuable position, has the pedigree and, even after an underwhelming season, still projects as a star. If Montreal takes Slafkovsky — who figures to be a strong fit for the Devils, who own the second pick and are already set with Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier down the middle — the domino effect could be considerable. If the Canadiens shock everyone and go with University of Minnesota center Logan Cooley, things will go particularly haywire.
“I think that anytime you have a player at the top, anytime you have a player who’s been considered as that No. 1 guy, there’s always gonna be people trying to bring him down,” Wright, who was given exceptional status at age 15 and allowed to enter juniors a year early to set him on course for Thursday night, said. “Always gonna be people trying to nitpick your game. Trying to find those little flaws in your game and create controversy or a little more suspense. I don’t really know what the purpose is.”
That served as a good reminder: Despite all the conversation otherwise, there is reason the is conventional wisdom is what it is. And that scenario would put Slafkovsky in New Jersey.
“They have two good centers,” Slafkovsky said, regarding the Devils. “So they are not as big as me, so I think I can fit there and create something for them.”
Still, there is a strong possibility the Devils, who have been at sea for most of the recent past, could deal the second pick if the right opportunity presents itself. With Hughes and Hischier considered foundational pieces — and with Jack’s brother, Luke, soon to join along the blue line — the Devils could decide now is the time to eschew waiting, and Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat looms as a blue-chip option on the trade block. The Devils have been to the playoffs just once since making the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, and any team forced to wait a decade between second-round appearances would naturally grow impatient.
“I think they have a really solid young team,” Wright said. “They have a lot of great young talent, a lot of good pieces on their team. They’re an organization who wants to win, wants to be a contender. If I’m lucky enough to be a part of that, I think I can definitely help impact that for sure.”
Though the Devils hosted both Wright and Slafkovsky for visits, the goal for both is, of course, to go at the top.
“Obviously,” Wright said, “you want to be No. 1. You want to be the guy who goes first. You want to be the guy chosen first.
“At the end, I want to be the best,” Slafkovsky said. “When I’m retired, I want to be the best player from this draft.”