NHL Draft: Uncertainty surrounds top pick between Wright, Slafkovsky, Cooley

Detroit News

Montreal — Rather than tip his hand on who the Montreal Canadiens plan to select with the first pick in the NHL draft, general manager Kent Hughes joked they’ll end up with all three of Shane Wright, Juraj Slafkovsky and Logan Cooley.

If the Canadiens want to make a splash, they could end up with two of them.

There’s uncertainly surrounding who’s going No. 1 for the first time in nearly a decade, when the Colorado Avalanche chose Nathan MacKinnon in 2013. In the aftermath of MacKinnon leading the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup, the Canadiens are confronted with a potentially franchise-changing decision in their first time picking first in 42 years and as the hosts of the draft that begins Thursday in Montreal.

“If there was any one player with a perfect track record, it would be a pretty simple decision and we probably would have already declared what we were going to do,” Hughes said Wednesday. “Everything we can know, whether it’s Shane or Logan or Juraj, we want to know to what extent they will be able to live with the pressure of playing in Montreal.”

Wright for years has been playing with pressure, in the microscope in the Ontario Hockey League as the long-projected top pick in this draft. He put up 94 points in 63 games of junior hockey this past season.

The Canadian center believes he’s NHL-ready and wants the pressure of getting picked first overall by the Canadiens at Bell Centre 51 years after they selected Guy Lafleur in the same slot.

“I’m competitive,” Wright said. “I always want to be first, I always want to be the best. I think no matter what position you’re in, no matter where you’re ranked, it’s always your goal and you always want to be first. You want to be that first guy chosen and that’s always been my mindset.”

Dan Marr, head of NHL Central Scouting, has said Wright and Slafkovsky, a big forward from Slovakia, are the most likely prospects to play in the league next season. Slafkovsky has drawn comparisons to late Hall of Famer Clark Gillies and was named most outstanding player at the Olympics after scoring seven goals in seven games.

Slafkovsky repeated Wednesday he would be good fit on left wing with Montreal centers Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. Asked if the Canadiens were going to take him, the charismatic 18-year-old responded: “I don’t know. You need to ask them.”

Because Hughes isn’t telling, the teams with the next few picks have to get ready for multiple scenarios. The New Jersey Devils took a significant amount of calls about trading the second pick, but they’re prepared to make it depending on what Montreal does before them.

“We’ve got it mapped out,” GM Tom Fitzgerald said. “At the end of the day, Montreal’s going to pick a player and then we’re going to have a decision to make.”

The Arizona Coyotes pick third, the Seattle Kraken fourth and Philadelphia Flyers fifth. Arizona may have a tough choice between Cooley, an American center from Pittsburgh, and Cutter Gauthier, who grew up in the Phoenix area.

The dominos beginning with the top pick could take the draft in many different directions.

“Obviously we’ll cross four names off before we call a name, assuming we stay at 5,” Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher said. “I can see scenarios when nearly every player there could be available at 5.”

There’s also a scenario in which the Devils could do something surprising, given Czech defenseman David Jiricek and Slafkovsky Olympic teammate Simon Nemec are also in the top tier of available prospects. Much like nine years ago when long-projected top pick Seth Jones fell to four, that could happen to Wright.

Or Wright could go first, like most in hockey have been expecting for some time.

“There’s no clear-cut No. 1,” Fitzgerald said. “The majority of years you’ve had someone, so that’s why it’s unique. They’re all really good players, a lot of different positions. But they all may end up being the same at the end of the day with all having similar ceilings in our opinion.”

Guerin: Kaprizov is fine

Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin said Kirill Kaprizov remains in Russia and is doing well, denying a report the star winger returned to the U.S. and adding the team is trying to find out more about the situation.

Russian newspaper Sport-Express reported Wednesday that Kaprizov immediately returned to the U.S. after Philadelphia Flyers goaltending prospect Ivan Fedotov was taken to a remote military base in northern Russia because his name was linked to fraudulent military identification.

“He’s in Russia, and he’s doing fine,” Guerin said after the annual GMs meeting at the NHL draft. “He’s with his friends and with his family.”

Uncertainty surrounding Kaprizov comes at an uneasy time with war still raging in Ukraine after Fedotov reportedly was picked up by law enforcement in Russia last week ahead of a planned move to the U.S. Fedotov, 25, signed with Philadelphia in May after his contract in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League expired.

Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher had no update on Fedotov’s status.

“I think it’s best that I limit my public comments on the matter,” Fletcher said. “It’s obviously a sensitive situation, and we’re doing our best to stay abreast of developments, and that’s probably the best way to leave it.”

The NHL has not given teams any formal guidance about getting Russian players back before next season, which is a logistical challenge based on the U.S., Canada and other countries suspending travel to and from Russia and Belarus. The Players’ Association is beginning to look into how to assist players, if necessary.

Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said he was not worried about star captain Alex Ovechkin or defenseman Dmitry Orlov getting back to North America before training camp opens in mid-September.

“I think obviously there’s a little uncertainty,” MacLellan, said. “But talking to our guys, I think everybody’s pretty comfortable that they’re coming back and they’re playing next year, so I can go by what our players say and their comfort level with it. And there might be some uncertainty, but I think we’re pretty confident they’re all coming back to play.”

New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello said he had no concern about Ilya Sorokin returning and said the young goalie being in Russia had “no bearings” on what the team might do with veteran netminder Semyon Varlamov, who has one year left on his contract.

Kaprizov, the best player on the 2018 gold medal-winning Russian Olympic team who has become the face of the Wild, is set to enter the second season of a $45 million, five-year deal.

Guerin said he was “not overly concerned” about Kaprizov going home to Russia after Minnesota was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. He’s attempting not to worry too much about Kaprizov returning.

“All I’m trying to do is get information and not jump the gun or push the panic button on anything,” Guerin said.

Free agent watch

A week away from the start of free agency, defenseman Kris Letang is much closer to re-signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins than center Evgeni Malkin, and the Nashville Predators continue to work to keep forward Filip Forsberg.

Penguins GM Ron Hextall expects to have Letang signed in the coming days. Malkin? Not so much.

“I’d be surprised if we don’t get Kris done,” he said. “Geno, we’re still working on, so they’re at a different stage.”

The Predators are down to the late stages of talks with Forsberg, who’s coming off setting career highs with 42 goals, 42 assists and 84 points in 69 games.

“We’re so close to the deadline,” GM David Poile said. “We’re all going to know pretty soon. Just keep pecking away, and we’re just putting our best foot forward.”

Some deals are already getting done. Columbus on Wednesday re-signed restricted free agent defenseman Adam Boqvist to a $7.8 million, three-year deal.

Mile High banner raising

The NHL released its regular-season schedule, which features the Colorado Avalanche raising their Stanley Cup banner before hosting the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 12.

The Avalanche won their third title by beating the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in six games. The teams will meet twice over the span of six days after the All-Star break, with the Avalanche playing at Tampa Bay on Feb. 9, and the Lightning traveling to Colorado on Feb. 14.

The 1,312-game schedule opens with the resumption of the NHL’s Global Series, which had been canceled the past two seasons because of the pandemic. The Nashville Predators will face the San Jose Sharks in Prague, Czech Republic, in a two-game set Oct. 7 and 8. Colorado and the Blue Jackets will travel to Tampere, Finland, to play games on Nov. 4 and 5.

The formal schedule in North America opens with two games on Oct. 11, when Tampa Bay travels to FACE the New York Rangers in a rematch of the Eastern Conference final, and the Los Angeles Kings play at the Vegas Golden Knights.

The remainder of the schedule returns to normal after being disrupted by the pandemic the past two years, with the season scheduled to end on April 13.

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