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NHL

Someone’s Going To Regret This

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Shane Wright had been the presumptive No. 1 overall pick for years—years! Dating back at least to 2019, when he became only the sixth player ever to be granted an exemption to play in the OHL as a 15-year-old, following in the skate ruts of the likes of guys named Tavares, Ekblad, and McDavid. Then a funny thing happened along the long road to Montreal, which hosted Thursday night’s first round of the draft, and by coincidence also had the fateful first pick. Over the last year Wright’s stock slipped, a little mysteriously—the Canadian center had a fine year in juniors, but some of the hype had undeniably fallen off, and big Slovak winger Juraj Slafkovsky had been there to pick it up.

So while Wright was still the favorite to go No. 1, it was by no means a sure thing. The Canadiens’ selection of Slafkovsky still caught Habs fans off-guard:

That crowd sound is easily identifiable, not as joy nor as displeasure over the pick, but as recognition that, as potentially franchise-changing decisions go, it was a bold one. Either this will pay off big-time, or we just fucked ourselves.

It’s hard to put a finger on what soured so many scouts and analysts on the 18-year-old Wright. Part of it certainly may have been prospect fatigue: If you identify a guy as a future star that early, the next few years inevitably become an exercise in picking apart his flaws. You want to see him continue to develop, but those incremental improvements are just routine and expected—instead you start noticing his weaknesses, notice where he might not be progressing quite as smoothly as you’d like. Being a prospective No. 1 means being under an enormous magnifying glass, and the people holding it have all the time in the world to talk themselves out of you.

Wright lost an entire year to the pandemic, then had an underwhelming start to his 2021–22 season, which probably did him in. Even though he finished strong, putting up 32 goals and 94 points in 63 games, you could sort of see, if you wanted to see and if you were looking for it specifically, the vague outlines of his ceiling. He does everything very well, but perhaps nothing spectacularly. Quick, smart, good hockey sense both on and off the puck, the promise of a solid two-way center but maybe not a capital-P Playmaker. He would have been a safe pick, a solid second-line center at worst. But some teams subscribe to the old John Tortorella philosophy that safe is death, and Montreal—with Tortorella’s old charges Martin St. Louis behind the bench and Vincent Lecavalier in the front office—are apparently one of them.

Juraj Slafkovsky doesn’t represent safety but promise. The 6-foot-4, 229-pound left winger is breathtakingly fast, with enviable puck-handling skills and the body to win battles by physicality, even if that’s not quite his game. He caught scouts’ attention with standout performances at the Olympics and at world championships. “All the tools without the toolbox,” as one scout put it. He is your prototypical big, fast, European scorer, and it’s easy and tempting to picture what he could become, and to picture his ceiling as higher than Wright’s. His floor’s probably lower, too. But a team as down bad as Montreal needs a franchise-changer, and it’s hard to fault them for taking a risk to go get one.

A funny thing happened to Wright after the Slafkovsky pick, though: He didn’t go at No. 2, or at No. 3. The Devils, seemingly already set with their centermen of the future, reached for defenseman Simon Nemec. It makes sense on its face, though I can’t exactly recall a team ever complaining it had too many good centers. Then the Coyotes selected center Logan Cooley, who projects as a little more offensively minded than Wright, and who they had no doubt scouted heavily, expecting him to be the clear best player left on the board when their pick came. It’s got to gall Wright that, even with him available, Arizona still went with Cooley.

“Definitely going to have a little chip on my shoulder,” Wright said of falling out of the top three. “Definitely gonna give me a little more fire.”

Wright would go at No. 4 to the Kraken, who presumably could not believe their luck. I think it’s a fine place for him. There’ll be less pressure for immediate results in Seattle (though you could say that about roughly 30 NHL cities when the comparison is Montreal), and with 2021 second-overall pick Matty Beniers already in the fold, there won’t even necessarily be pressure on Wright to prove himself as a 1C.

It’ll be a draft night likely long remembered in these four cities, and almost certainly not with universal fondness—that’s just the nature of a draft. As the headline says, someone’s probably going to regret their choice here. If I could tell you who, though, I’d be a very wealthy man.