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Guessing Game

Top Pick Still Up For Debate; Sabres Pick 3 Times Tonight

Slovakian winger Juraj Slafkovsky, above, is likely to hear his name called early tonight at the 2022 NHL Draft in Montreal. Canadian center Shane Wright, American center Logan Cooley and Slafkovsky will find out which of them the Montreal Canadiens would like to make history by selecting first overall. AP photo

MONTREAL — Tonight the lives will change for 32 hockey players as they will be selected in the first round of the National Hockey League draft in Montreal.

In most cases the person being selected first overall at the draft is decided months ahead of time and in some cases it’s known years ahead of time. That was thought to be the case when Don Mills Flyers center Shane Wright was granted exceptional player status into the Ontario Hockey League at 15 years old, but things have changed and now it is uncertain whether him or Slovakian winger Juraj Slafkovsky will be picked by the Montreal Canadiens at No. 1.

Last year the draft was a big question mark for many players because the pandemic had varying impacts on each league around the world, while this year every league is close to normal operation, with some lingering effects. Wright blew the doors off the hinges in his 15 year old season with Kingston in the OHL, even outperforming the exceptional season of Connor McDavid. His second season was supposed to be when he would build off of that, but instead he missed the entire season due to COVID and only played in one tournament — which he dominated.

Slafkovsky on the other hand has not missed a beat, continually playing in the junior leagues in Finland and now this year the men’s league, Liiga. Instead of having that season to build on, Wright lost step in the race and this year Slafkovsky closed the gap to a point where teams value the winger’s upside over the can’t miss center from the OHL.

Slafkovsky’s case comes from his ability at 17 and 18 years old to play in a men’s league and his great performances with the Slovakian national team at the Olympics where he was tournament MVP. He has the 6’4″ frame that old time hockey drools over and the skills that don’t always accompany size are right there too.

However, it is unfair to hold any of that against Wright, who is a Canadian and plays in the junior leagues. Unlike Slafkovsky, Wright would never have been in consideration to play for the Canadian national team at the Olympics, while Slovakia welcomes younger talent because that is all it has in its pool of players to select from. The biggest thing in Wright’s favor is that he plays the most important position, center, and he has one of the best brains in the draft.

The great debate at the top of the draft is just the beginning of the madness, because after that it doesn’t get much simpler. American center Logan Cooley should certainly join Wright and Slafkovsky in the top three, but aside from those three, the players waiting to hear their name called could go at four, 14 or 24.

That’s how much debate there is in this draft and teams like the Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes and Montreal Canadiens with multiple picks could walk away like bandits.

Buffalo first picks at nine and judging by the active roster and what’s coming through the pipeline it would be best to find a center or another elite forward prospect. In that range, Buffalo could take a sizable centers like 6’3” American Cutter Gauthier, 6’2″ Austrian Marco Kasper or 6’4″ Canadian Conor Geekie. Gauthier is a strong skater with a heavy shot; Kasper flies around the ice looking to hit something, there is a little bit of offense there but not the upside of Gauthier or Geekie; and Geekie’s biggest problem is his skating, but he has a good brain and likes to set up his teammates.

My choice for size would be Gauthier, but of the smaller to average size crop 5’9” Canadian Matthew Savoie, 5’10” American Frank Nazar III or 6″ Finnish forward Brad Lambert. A trend that is noticeable is that the smaller you go, generally the eye-popping offense is more obvious and the skill is evident with Savoie and Nazar. I have Savoie ranked as the third best player in the draft, but his stature will see him fall and it’s even possible the forward that scored 90 points in the Western Hockey League will be there at 16. Nazar is a Detroit kid and could likely find himself there at No. 8, but he’s a player many think is right on par with his teammate Cooley and he will make a team very happy to say his name tonight.

Lambert is probably the most enigmatic player of the draft, just like Wright, Lambert was anointed as the next great Finnish player until an underwhelming draft year compared to expectations. Lambert is easily one of the most physically gifted players in the draft, but scouts have questions about his brain and ambition to play hard every shift and these are the same questions that had fellow Finn Aatu Raty fall out of the first round last year. Raty proved that was a massive mistake by scoring 40 points in 41 Liiga games this season after a draft year total of 6 points in 35 contests, I predict that Lambert will have the same kind of improvement after his 4 point in 25 game campaign.

At 16 is when Buffalo should get a little daring, with three picks in the first round General Manager Kevyn Adams should swing for the fences at least once. This would be a great spot to beat the teams waiting out for the Russian players like Danila Yurov and Ivan Miroshnichenko, the duo would without a doubt be top 10 picks if circumstances outside their control didn’t impact their value.

In between Buffalo’s second and third pick, Pittsburgh will make a selection and this draft could signal what they might intend for the future. If they keep the pick, a potential building block for the future could fall to pick 21 or they could trade the pick to help the roster right now.

Obviously the biggest concern is what will happen to Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, Pittsburgh should try to retain the two players that have helped bring three cups to the city. If the pick is kept, Pittsburgh could go with a home run swing if Canadian defenseman Denton Mateychuk is around or it could select one of the high ceiling Russians mentioned earlier. Close to NHL ready that could help sooner than later might be Swedish winger Liam Ohgren, Swiss defenseman Lian Bichsel, Czechia center Jiri Kulich and if for some reason Lambert happens to fall there he would be a great pick.

In Buffalo’s last spot, a defenseman could be taken or another swing for the fences. Buffalo needs more defensemen in its prospect pool, but taking a high caliber defender could lead to a bust if the key is to build around Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power. Complimentary defenders around 28 could include Canadian Tristan Luneau, American Ryan Chesley and Bichsel.

Other notable names to be excited to hear tonight would be my favorite prospect in Swedish forward Jonathan Lekkerimaki who is an elite goal scorer with the best shot in the class, Finnish sniper Joakim Kemell, Canadian sharpshooter Jagger Firkus or Slovakian speedster Filip Mesar. Defensively, David Jiricek, Simon Nemec and Kevin Korchinski will hear their names early, Pavel Mintyukov could join them in the top 15 and Owen Pickering will likely hear his name called too.

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