Today I dive into the debate surrounding the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NHL Draft where I discuss my deliberations for my personal NHL Draft ranking, and why I ended up with TPS winger Juraj Slafkovsky over Kingston center Shane Wright in what I called a near coin-flip decision. We’ll also discuss US NTDP center Logan Cooley, who some scouts have in that mix as well.
Tomorrow, I’ll tell you what people in the NHL are saying about the top pick.
Arguments for: The strongest arguments for Wright are based mostly, but not entirely, on what he did in prior seasons. In his 15-year-old/exceptional status season he scored 39 goals and 66 points in 58 OHL games. For comparison’s sake, Connor McDavid scored 25 goals and 66 points in 63 games in his exceptional status season and John Tavares scored 45 goals and 77 points in 65 games. Wright’s nine goals and 14 points at the U18 World Championships were both the most by an underage Canadian player in the tournament’s short history. He’s worn the Captain’s “C” wherever he goes, including as an underage player on Canada’s U18 and U17 teams. He finished the season top 10 in OHL scoring.
On a talent perspective, his hockey sense is among the best in the draft. Wright makes a ton of plays throughout the course of a game. While I didn’t think so this season, historically I’ve viewed his shot as an elite asset and something that can break games open.
Wright is also a true center, who projects to be a reliable two-way center in the NHL based on what he’s shown throughout his career, such as playing tough defensive minutes while playing ahead of his age group.
Arguments against: Wright had a down season by his standards. He scored more goals in the OHL as a U16 player, in fewer games, than he did as a U18 player. It’s rare for a potential No. 1 to not be an elite CHL scorer, never mind not being the top scorer on his CHL team. Kingston was also knocked out in the second round of the OHL playoffs in five games by North Bay.
His toolkit is the biggest argument against him. Wright is a talented and well-rounded player, but when watching him you don’t get blown away. He doesn’t have truly elite speed or skill, and isn’t the most physically imposing player either. Watching him throughout his junior career he would often play well but you didn’t often end games thinking he took over.
Shane Wright might be the projected No. 1 pick, but he doesn’t have the highest upside in the class.
Still, there is a lot to like, writes @coreypronman.
31 prospects are ranked on upside alone: https://t.co/RjeCouYVuW pic.twitter.com/UsbtJwBLdx
— The Athletic NHL (@TheAthleticNHL) June 8, 2022
Arguments for: Slafkovsky’s toolkit is highly intriguing. In any draft class, you don’t often see many 6-foot-4 players who can skate and handle the puck like he can. He has the ability on any given shift to take over and create chances from nothing. The pure pro projection and upside in his game is his first and best argument.
Slafkovsky also played quite well at various points in the last two years particularly in international play. He turned in one of the best World Championships ever by a U18 player, being a go-to skater for Slovakia in that tournament. He was MVP of the Olympics, helping Slovakia capture bronze. He was one of the best players at the Hlinka Gretzky, helping Slovakia earn silver.
Even though he went pointless in both tournaments, as a 16-year-old at the world juniors he was quite impressive in the 2020-21 season and made the rare appearance for a U17 player at the World Championships.
Arguments against: Slafkovsky’s production in Liiga, and even to an extent in his Finland junior games this season, aren’t close to what you expect of a first pick. Yes, TPS was a very good team who went all the way to the Liiga finals, and yes his ice time wasn’t that high in the first half, but while that is useful context some of that can also be read as an excuse for middling production for a projected high pick.
Slafkovsky also plays a non-premium position as a left wing. He’s played a little center historically but very rarely over the last few years. That is a big knock on him when you’re talking about potential first-line centers being the alternative options with the No. 1 pick.
Arguments for: Cooley is the most dynamic and exciting player in the draft from a pure talent perspective. He’s an excellent skater with a very high skill level, and displays great offensive IQ with the puck. He’s not just pure skill as he competes quite hard and plays the game fast. He can create offense in numerous ways.
Cooley was the go-to player for a great US NTDP age group. He played up with the USA U20 team in the summer and at the canceled world juniors where in that time frame he was one of the best players for USA. This was an unusual feat for someone his age.
Arguments against: Cooley’s actual production this season didn’t match up with what my eyes saw. His 1.50 points per game versus USHL players was 13th among US NTDP players over the last 15 seasons, being outproduced by players such as Jack Roslovic, Jake Wise, Sonny Milano and Oliver Wahlstrom in their draft seasons. However, it was more than Trevor Zegras, which showed that stats aren’t always everything. His U18 World Championships were very good but not elite. Six goals and 10 points while being the driving player for the clear best team in the tournament was great, but it’s nothing special. Shane Wright’s U18s from the prior season had nearly as many goals as Cooley had points this season.
A big part of Cooley’s selling point is he’s a highly-talented center, but at 5-foot-10 there aren’t a whole lot of top-two line centers in the NHL who look like that. The NHL centers last season who were 5-foot-10 or shorter and had at least 0.6 points per game were in order: Jack Hughes, Brayden Point, and Vincent Trocheck, end list. There just aren’t many players who look like what Cooley is projected as, elevating the risk he is pushed to the wing as a pro unless he shows he can really drive play and defend well down the middle despite his frame.
I had some sources push back on my using Point as a comparable for Cooley. My argument back is I don’t think he actually plays like Point, but the amount of data points I have to work with is quite limited, which is kind of the problem in a nutshell.
— NHL Network (@NHLNetwork) April 28, 2022
Why I decided on Slafkovsky
We’ll focus on Wright vs. Slafkovsky to start, which is what I believe the debate is mostly, but not exclusively centers around.
Comparing the pure tools, Wright is a slightly better skater but there’s not much of a difference, though. I think Slafkovsky’s pure puck skills are better, but Wright is a smarter player who makes more plays. Wright also has a higher compete level, leading him to be a solid two-way center. They can both shoot the puck about as well as each other. There is a size differential there, as Slafkovsky is about three inches taller. The amount of categories each has an edge in is about the same, but the gap between Slafkovsky and Wright in terms of size plus skill, is greater than the edge Wright has in terms of IQ plus compete. Thus I think Slafkovsky has the edge in terms of the pure toolkit, which I would characterize as a slight-to-moderate edge.
Comparing how they performed this season, Wright was a top-10 scorer in the OHL, but compared to historical No. 1 CHL picks, his scoring rate wasn’t that high. He made Canada’s U20 team in a top-two center role, but in his brief time with the U20 team between his summer camp and the canceled world juniors, he didn’t stand out. Slafkovsky didn’t perform close to what you expected for a potential No. 1 pick in Liiga. There were a few times he rose to elite performances, including an MVP performance at the Olympics, and then being a top 15 scorer at the World Championships, both of which were unique feats given his age playing against pros, and at times NHL players at the worlds. Wright’s season overall was more impressive on average, but given Slafkovsky had those big moments where he looked like an elite prospect, I give him the slight edge this season and I can see reasonable arguments either way on this one.
Compared to how they’ve performed over the course of their careers, it’s not close. Wright has been doing unusual things for his age for years and has accumulated many accolades over the past few seasons. Slafkovsky looked very impressive in the 2020-21 season, including being a top player for Slovakia at the world juniors as a 16-year-old and playing for Slovakia’s senior team at the World Championships, but the overall track record is a strong edge to Wright.
Wright also has a positional edge on Slafkovsky, as center is a much-preferred position over a winger. Slafkovsky has dabbled at center over the last few years, but likely projects as an NHL winger.
On the one hand, we have a winger in Slafkovsky whose pure toolkit is superior, and whose high points this season were higher than Wright’s, whereas Wright has the positional edge and has a much longer history of consistency of being a high-level player. This is why in my draft board article I called it a coin flip. There are very good arguments for either player. If I was with a team of evaluators and the majority of my colleagues wanted Wright I wouldn’t put up a fight. I ultimately determined that the higher upside based on Slafkovsky’s tools and the rare signs of truly special performances in this draft class was enough to nudge him ahead of a player like Wright who seemed to flatline a little this season.
Regarding Cooley, he’s a guy you have to consider strongly just due to how unique and how dynamic he is. However, just due to his season and overall track record not being anything special and his toolkit not being flawless due to his size deficiency he was a guy who never seriously entered the conversation for No. 1 for me.
(Top photo of Juraj Slafkovsky: George Walker IV/USA Today)