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Will Shane Wright or Juraj Slafkovsky go No. 1?
It is the first of many questions heading into this Thursday’s NHL Entry Draft. But like all drafts, predicting where each prospect will end up is not as much a priority as predicting what players are going to get moved via trade.
Is Johnny Gaudreau heading to Philadelphia? Is Pierre-Luc Dubois going to the New York Rangers? Will Edmonton find a suitor for Jesse Puljujarvi? And who will win the bidding war for J.T. Miller?
With free agency coming up next week, these next few days could set the table for a summer’s worth of movement. Here are some of the questions we should be getting answers to soon:
Who is going No. 1?
All signs point to the Montreal Canadiens selecting Shane Wright with the No. 1 overall pick. But it’s far from a guarantee. The Kingston Frontenacs centre, who gained exceptional status to play in the OHL as a 16-year-old, is considered the safe choice. But after failing to dominate offensively, TSN recently dropped Wright below Slovakian winger Juraj Slafkovsky, who could have a greater upside after leading the Olympics in scoring. For the Habs, it could come down to positional need. It could also be a three-horse race, with American centre Logan Cooley reportedly also on Montreal’s radar. Either way, the mystery of who the Canadiens pick should add another layer of drama to a draft where there are already so many question marks.
Will anyone take a chance on a Russian?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is expected to have an impact on this year’s draft. How big of an impact is not yet known. But the fact that Flyers goaltending prospect Ivan Fedotov was recently detained as an “army evader” should scare some teams from “wasting” a top pick on a player they may never see in the NHL. That’s bad news for Danila Yurov and Ivan Miroshnichenko, who in any other year would be locked to go in the top-5 — but who may now have to wait until after the first round or longer before a team rolls the dice on them.
Who could be the steal of the draft?
With both the lack of a generational star and the lack of a consensus regarding the order, this year’s draft is reminding a lot of scouts of 2017, when Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick were the top-two picks — but weren’t necessarily the top-two players. If that’s the case, don’t be surprised if three years from now we’re asking how Joakim Kemell or Simon Nemec managed to slide outside the top-3 the way that Cale Makar and Elias Pettersson did. One player who could cause some second-guessing is Moose Jaw Warriors forward Jagger Firkus, who wowed fans with a lacrosse-style goal in the WHL playoffs and was named MVP at the CHL Top Prospects Game, but is ranked 12th amongst North American skaters mostly because he tips the scales at 150 pounds.
Who is in danger of falling?
Matthew Savoie, who finished amongst the top-10 in WHL scoring this season, also led all rookies with 90 points in 65 games. At his best, he looks like he could be another Brayden Point. It is for those reasons that NHL Central Scouting ranked the Alberta native as the fourth-best North American skater. But because he’s not that big of a centre and because he played on a line with first-round prospect Conor Geekie, who may have inflated Savoie’s numbers, scouts are starting to second-guess whether he belongs in the top 10. Sportsnet recently put Savoie sixth overall, TSN recently dropped him to ninth overall and another scout wondered if he’d still be available when the Maple Leafs were picking at 25th. If so, Toronto fans will be happy.
Will the Senators trade their pick?
Ottawa has the seventh overall pick in this year’s draft. It’s a familiar spot for a team that has been stocking the cupboards for some time now, with four top-10 picks coming in the past four years. Eventually, you have to focus on the present as much as the future. So perhaps it’s time for the Senators to trade this year’s first-rounder for an NHL-ready player that can get them closer to a playoff spot. The question is what do they need? Well, you could argue just about everything. That includes a top-six winger to replace Nick Paul and a right-shot defenceman to play with Thomas Chabot. If they manage to get both, then maybe they can also convince Claude Giroux to come home as a free agent.
Where will Johnny Gaudreau end up?
The fact that a 40-goal scorer who finished fourth in the Hart Trophy has not signed an extension in Calgary should have Flames fans worried. After all, whatever concerns the team had in Gaudreau as a playoff performer were answered by a bounce-back year where he led the team with 14 points in 12 games. That being said, the price tag for the 28-year-old isn’t going to be cheap. Gaudreau, who is being courted by Philadelphia and New Jersey and anyone looking for a top-5 scorer, is going to want close to $ 10 million. The question is can Calgary afford to pay that, while also keeping money aside for Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane, who are both restricted free agents? If not, maybe his rights get traded before losing him for nothing.
Will the Leafs trade for a goalie?
While the Colorado Avalanche showed that you can win a Stanley Cup with an average-to-good goalie, they also showed that in order to do that you need the best defence in the NHL. That’s a fact that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Leafs don’t have a Cale Makar. Nor do they have a Devon Toews. They don’t even have a Josh Manson. So while it’s great that Colorado won with Darcy Kuemper in net, Toronto should be aiming much higher Kuemper and the other B-listers out there in free agency if they want to eventually get out of the first round. Luckily for them, Anaheim’s John Gibson could be available. But in order to get him, GM Kyle Dubas might have to consider parting ways with William Nylander.
Will Edmonton trade Jesse Puljujarvi or Kailer Yamamoto — or both?
Despite advancing to the conference final, a lot of the same questions that were plaguing the Oilers a year ago have not gone away. They still need a No. 1 goalie and help on the backend. They also need to figure out if they are going to bring back Evander Kane. But the most pressing question is what to do with Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto, who both require extensions. The good news is both are restricted free agents. But the bad news is that both first-rounders had disappointing seasons and may not be worth the money required to re-sign them. If that’s the case, maybe GM Ken Holland can flip one — or both — and use the money on Kane and a goalie to share the crease with Mike Smith.
Will Vancouver trade away J.T. Miller?
With reports that the Canucks and Miller remain further apart on a possible extension, there’s a good chance we could see the 29-year-old moved at the draft. Coincidentally, that’s where the Canucks acquired him in the first place, sending a first- and a third-round pick, along with Marek Mazanec to Tampa Bay in 2019. After scoring 32 goals and 99 points in 80 games last season, Miller’s value has probably increased since then. For the Canucks, who are also picking 15th overall, it’s another opportunity to further build towards the future.
Will the Jets trade Pierre-Luc Dubois?
After missing the playoffs this year, the Jets have to figure out what direction they are heading. On paper, this should be a Stanley Cup contender. But the problem is the team has continually performed below expectations. Something is wrong, whether it’s on the ice or within their dressing room. Maybe new coach Rick Bowness can solve some of those issues. But with Dubois reportedly not interested in re-signing with the team once his contract expires in 2024, you have to wonder if something more significant has to happen. If so, moving a 24-year-old centre who scored 28 goals and 60 points shouldn’t be difficult, with the Rangers and Canadiens already showing interest.