Logan Cooley is the clear underdog in this three-man race for the top of the NHL draft board.
Shane Wright and Juraj Slafkovsky appear to be the frontrunners for very different reasons, Wright for his sound two-way game, his high hockey IQ, the efficiency in his game and Slafkovsky for the spectacular nature of his game, his combination of size and skill that makes him a potential game-breaker that can physically impose his will on the opposition. Wright has the high floor, all but assured of being a very good to excellent NHL centre, while Slafkovsky has the high ceiling, the potential to be a superstar while carrying the risk his game simply doesn’t translate to the NHL.
Cooley, in some ways, is like a combination of the two. He can play a sound two-way game like Wright and display the spectacular flashes of Slafkovsky. He kills penalties, quarterbacks the power play, has a physical edge to his game and generates offense at five-on-five.
So, what gives? Why is a player who embodies some of the better elements of the two players above him in most rankings find himself running third? One reason might be just how strong his frequent linemates were at the US NTDP, spending a lot of time playing with Cutter Gauthier and Jimmy Snuggerud, a sure lottery pick next month and another very likely first-round pick. Though Cooley was clearly a driver on the line, this might be seen as a knock against him.
The only other reason I can come up with is his size. At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Cooley does not have the build of a successful NHL center, trailing Wright by a couple of inches and 20 pounds. If he’s not ultimately a center at the NHL level — something Cooley, by the way, is not all that open to, pushing back hard on the notion and pointing to how Jack Hughes started on the wing before moving back to center as something he could do — then he would clearly be behind Slafkovsky as the top winger in the draft for the same reason. Slafkovsky’s size and skill and nastiness combination gives him unicorn potential. Cooley doesn’t have that.
And that’s probably what is holding Cooley back here, people focusing on what he doesn’t have compared to the other two in the race. But what he does have is also worth noting, and it’s an impressive package of skills, dynamic tendencies and — most of all — utter competitiveness. Offensively and defensively, Cooley competes all over the ice, and often plays far bigger than his size as a result.
We had the unique opportunity, after watching video of Cooley’s games from various points in the regular season, to actually have him comment on some of our observations of the strengths and weaknesses in his game.
Offensively dynamic, the good and bad
Cooley often makes this aspect of his game impossible to ignore. There is almost always a shift where Cooley decides he’s going to make something happen. And when he makes that decision, he often follows through on it.
This encapsulates the mentality well. It is late in the gold medal game at the Under-18 world championship, his team is down two goals, and none of his teammates are really moving with the same urgency as he is, so Cooley decides to go in alone on FIVE defenders and manages to draw a penalty.
Though the game situation is what made this play extraordinary, this is something Cooley did relatively often. A wall of opposing players doesn’t seem to deter him much.
“I’ve always just been a pretty skilled forward,” Cooley said. “I work on a lot of skills during the summer. I like to be a guy that isn’t afraid to try risky plays, a guy like (Trevor) Zegras is someone I like to watch because he plays the game a fun way. I like the way he makes plays and does the Michigan and stuff like that. I think it’s pretty cool.”
Cooley definitely isn’t afraid to try risky plays, and that can sometimes be an issue too.
Or here, in the third period of a tie game behind his own net.
“That’s definitely something I think I need to work on and find more of a balance of when to use my skill and when not to use it,” Cooley admitted. “I think when I have the chance to take someone one-on-one and beat someone, that’s when I should use it. When there’s two guys in front of me and I’m kind of stuck, not try to force a play. So I think it’s just trying to find a balance of when to use it and when not to.”
This is kind of what separates Cooley from Wright. While Wright might not often—or ever—rush the puck into the teeth of the defense like Cooley does, there’s a reason for that. Because it’s a low percentage play, and Wright doesn’t do low percentage. But on the other hand, you like to see confidence in a player thinking he can beat those percentages, that he has the skill to make it work regardless of the odds of success. When a player doesn’t take those risks, like Wright, you are less likely to see mistakes. But you are also less likely to see something spectacular.
Something like this.
Playing bigger than his size
Cooley might not be overly big, but he rarely takes that into account when engaging in battle situations. He goes in as if he were four inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than he is.
He’ll do it in the defensive zone as well.
These are only two examples, but with the way Cooley consistently goes to the front of the net and battles to maintain position there, the way he is able to absorb contact and protect the puck with his body, it is difficult to say he plays a small game. What would be easy to question as a scout, however, is to what extent Cooley can be effective playing this way against NHL competition and NHL-sized players.
The following section kind of encapsulates this problem.
Making plays as he falls
There are two sides to this. On the one hand, Cooley is masterful at making plays while on the ice. He does it a lot and manages to find holes in the defense because they are not expecting him to be able to make a play. This is what makes Cooley a dynamic player, the imagination, the competitiveness and the ability to make plays you don’t expect him to make.
Sometimes he even gets a scoring chance for himself in this situation.
“I don’t really pay attention to that too much, it’s just kind of an instinct thing,” Cooley said. “I think I’m a skilled guy who likes to work on my skills. In that situation, I want to be able to make plays when I’m on the ground, make plays whenever I can.”
But the more you see it happen, the more you realize Cooley is falling pretty often as well. And if he’s falling at this level, it would be fair to wonder how often he will manage to stay on his skates at the next level.
“I think it definitely comes with more strength,” Cooley countered. “As I keep maturing into my body, I don’t think it will be an issue after that.”
The thinking side of the game
Cooley might not have quite the same hockey IQ as Wright in terms of being a two-way player, but he cares about the areas of the game where hockey intelligence matters. Cooley is strong when it comes to getting back defensively and finding teammates on the ice. Wright might be stronger, his processor might be a bit quicker, but Cooley has those abilities to go with the dynamic elements he displays with more frequency than Wright.
This is a good example from the All-American game where Cooley’s defensive play led to him creating a good offensive chance with speed and will. This is how Cooley competes.
Or here in the gold medal game at the U18 worlds.
At the other end of the ice, Cooley can make high-end thinking plays with the game on the line by turning down a pretty good one-timer chance to make a better play for a teammate.
Same here where he sets up two very good scoring chances in the gold medal game at the U18 worlds within seconds of each other.
“Scouts know when you’re being a selfish player, and that’s not who I am at all,” Cooley said. “Using your teammates and finding open ice is the way that hockey’s played, playing a mature game is what they’re looking for and that’s what I try to do.”
Then there’s thinking on the forecheck, which only becomes more important at the NHL level as you play on teams that don’t have the puck quite as often as Cooley’s team did. There were numerous examples of Cooley’s understanding of timing and routes that make forechecking a strong element of his game. Again, maybe not quite as strong as Wright, but strong nonetheless.
Sometimes, that can look as simple as making a good read while the opposition is trying to break out.
But other times, it can combine with Cooley’s exceptional dynamic ability to create something special.
There’s a good reason why our Corey Pronman listed Cooley as the draft prospect with the most upside because the dynamic ability combined with the competitiveness is tantalizing. He makes plays that make your eyes pop while also playing a responsible game, most of the time.
But there’s a good reason why there is some question as to whether Cooley will reach his very high ceiling. The size issue is a legitimate factor, as is the debate of whether Cooley could survive at center in the NHL, despite his own strong feelings on the matter.
It seems unlikely Cooley will be taken No. 1 in the draft, but the tools are there. It’s just a matter of Montreal projecting what Cooley could be in four years once he has added strength and, hopefully for whichever team drafts him, followed an ideal development path. This is where Cooley’s intention to play a year at the University of Minnesota before turning pro becomes an important factor.
“That’s my goal, to be there for a year, sharpen up my game as much as I can, have a real dominant year, get stronger and fill out my body,” Cooley said. “Then I think I’ll be ready to make the jump.”
The perceived deficiencies in Cooley’s build could be overcome with a year of training and playing at the college level. Both Wright and Slafkovsky have every intention of playing in the NHL next season, and if the draft were only about next season, Cooley wouldn’t even be in the running to be taken at No. 1.
But the draft is not only about next season.
There is a very high ceiling with Cooley. It is up to the teams at the top of the draft to determine the likelihood of him reaching that ceiling. Because if he does, there is no doubt Cooley could wind up being the best player in this draft.
(Photo of Logan Cooley: Rena Laverty/USNTDP)