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Canadian Teams prep for the NHL draft

VANCOUVER, BC – JUNE 21: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on stage prior to the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft at Rogers Arena on June 21, 2019 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire)

By Lori Bennett

Sports Columnist

With the NHL Stanley Cup Final underway, and the last teams standing being the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche, Canada’s teams have turned their attention to the 2022 Amateur Draft.

This year’s draft is the first to be held in person since COVID-19 took us all hostage in the Winter of 2020. The event is being held at the Bell Centre in Montreal, and when tickets went on sale last week hockey-rabid fans in La Belle Province have made it a sell-out event. When Commissioner Gary Bettman opens the event, it will be the first time he has done so with a live audience since June of 2019.

A draft primer might be in order. Each team is awarded a pick in seven rounds – this means 32 teams will select 224 young men over the course of the draft. The order of selection is determined by a combination of regular season standings, a draft lottery and playoff results. Draft picks can be used as trade collateral and, consequently, some teams will head into the draft with less than the allotted seven, while others will hold more. The draft floor is often where trades are cooked, so by the time prospects are being selected, some of the positioning described herein may change.

Where strategy is concerned, teams are wise to use their first round picks to select the best player available to them when their turn arrives. In the second and third rounds, when good players are still available and there is less differentiation between their upside, organizational needs are targeted. The later rounds are where teams can afford to take a flyer on a kid who may be high risk – high reward. In every round, teams are wise to keep an eye on the prospects who drop lower than expected, because this is how steals happen.

The Montreal Canadiens finished in last place in the NHL this year, and that outcome bought them the best odds to win the draft lottery. Lady Luck and Mister Math combined to win the Habs the first overall pick. According to GM Kent Hughes, the Habs have not yet decided who they will select with that pick. Three players are the most likely candidates.

Shane Wright has been the projected top prospect of 2022 since he broke into the Ontario Hockey League at 15 after gaining exceptional status as an underaged player. He scored 39 goals and 66 points in 58 games as a rookie, and expectations flew through the roof. Then a pandemic-cancelled season threw a wrench into everything. Nonetheless, Wright is described as NHL-ready and playing a complete game, drawing comparisons to Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews. Having watched Wright in-person, I see a smart player who uses his effort wisely and is responsible all over the ice. That sounds like a player the Canadiens could really use.

Two other prospects have opinions about that. Juraj Skafkovsky is a big and powerful goal-scorer who turned heads for Slovakia at the Olympics. He has a skillset that may be tough for Montreal’s scouting staff to resist. Logan Cooley is an elite goal-scoring centre who can play the fast and skilled game Hughes has said he covets for his team moving forward. When the first pick is made on July 7th, my expectation is that we will hear Shane Wright’s name being called.

In addition to having first dibs, the Canadiens can select an additional 13 times. They currently hold the 26th overall pick, having acquired it from the Calgary Flames in the Tyler Toffoli trade. The “best player available” at that position may include centres like Quebec-born Nathan Gaucher or the GM’s son, Jack Hughes. It may also include some right-handed defencemen from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, such as Maveric Lamoureux or Tristan Luneau.

With the volume of picks available to Montreal and needing to strengthen their centre group and add depth to the right side of their defence, look for Hughes to package some of those picks to move up in the draft order. The Habs are rumoured to be interested in Swedish forward Jonathan Lekkermaki, but he will surely not warrant the first overall pick and he won’t be available at 26. Hughes may also use a pick or two to acquire help via trade.

The Ottawa Senators are the second Canadian team to take the stage at seventh overall. The Sens should probably target a goalie in this draft, but those available are not of first round quality. Ottawa has a ton of young prospects and a total of 11 picks. GM Pierre Dorion has said he’s willing to trade his first-round pick for the right player who can help his team right now. That kind of deal equals draft floor drama and may realistically happen this year. A player like William Nylander from the Toronto Maple Leafs might be very welcome in Ottawa, if the Sens were willing to give up the seventh overall pick along with a near-ready, low-cap prospect.

The Winnipeg Jets have two first round picks, at 14th overall and the 30th pick acquired from the New York Rangers in the deadline deal for Andrew Copp. With a centre group that is growing tenuous – Blake Wheeler is aging, and Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois may both become challenges to re-sign for different reasons – the Jets may be wise to target a centre. Perhaps GM Kevin Cheveldayoff might be tempted to package those two picks to try and get into the top 10 to draft one of the young pivots who played in Winnipeg this past season – Conor Geekie or Matthew Savoie would be excellent additions for the Jets. They have seven picks in total.

The Vancouver Canucks are due to select directly after the Jets at number 15. The Canucks have a solid goaltender, but a defence group that leaves something to be desired. This draft is deep on defencemen, and GM Patrik Allvin may find a gem in his team’s position. Ryan Chesley has been compared to Ryan McDonagh and looks like a perfect choice for Vancouver. The Canucks have six picks in total, lacking a second-round draft choice. I would also look to Vancouver as a team who may try to move an established player for another first round pick.

The Toronto Maple Leafs step up to pick at 25th overall and have just two more picks in this draft in the third and seventh rounds. GM Kyle Dubas is unlikely to use his one pick in the early rounds to draft for need – he will take the best player available at any position. Big defenceman Lian Bichsel is a big, strong, and mean defenceman of the ilk that the Leafs have lacked for years, but it is highly questionable whether he’s the kind of player Dubas values. Will Dubas be eyeing a centre to allow them to eventually move John Tavares to the wing? If so, a local player like Luca Del Bel Belluz may appeal. My eye test of this kid revealed a well-rounded player who can score and make plays.

The Edmonton Oilers are the final Canadian team to draft in the first round, coming in at 29th overall. They also have picks in the Rounds 5, 6 and 7 for a total of four picks. The biggest hole in Edmonton is in the goaltender position, but this is a very pressing need that can’t wait for a prospect to develop. GM Ken Holland may focus on forwards to complement a strong centre group in Edmonton. If a player like Isaac Howard or Rutger McGroarty would fall in their laps, it would be a very good outcome for the Oilers.

The Calgary Flames, having traded their first rounder to Montreal, have no pick until the second round, as of now. They currently have just three picks for this draft and will also likely be focusing on depth for their blue line with some strong forward prospects already on their way. Seamus Casey and Otto Salin are defencemen that might be available to the Flames in the second round, but I liked North Bay Battalion defenceman Ty Nelson’s game and he may still be there when Calgary takes the mic.

The draft promises to be an exciting affair as teams work the draft floor to both make their selections, and swap assets to improve.

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