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NHL Draft 2022: A recent history of debates for the No. 1 pick

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Shane Wright has been the consensus favorite to be selected first overall in the 2022 NHL Draft for years. But recently, his presumptive claim for the top spot has been threatened by Juraj Slafkovsky and Logan Cooley, as the Montreal Canadiens mull over a potentially franchise-altering decision.

Wright drew national attention for gaining rare exceptional status into the Ontario Hockey League, getting to graduate with his minor hockey teammates while continuing to play a year up.

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Prospects like Wright are prone to oversaturation; their game gets dissected by a cohort of scouts, media and fans, all speculating whether the hype is earned.

It’s not something unique to the 24-hour media cycle in 2022. In fact, there are several cases similar to Wright’s, where the presumed top prospect gets usurped in the final stages of the pre-draft process.

Before we get carried away, here’s a list of draft-day decisions that came down to the wire.

John Tavares (91) was taken ahead of Victor Hedman (77) at the 2009 NHL Draft. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
John Tavares (91) was taken ahead of Victor Hedman (77) at the 2009 NHL Draft. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

John Tavares vs. Victor Hedman, 2009

Tavares, in some ways, is the prototype for the modern hockey uber prospect. He was the best player on the best minor hockey team ever, while being almost two full calendar years younger than his teammates. As a result of his prodigious scoring with the Greater Toronto Hockey League’s Toronto Marlboros, the Canadian Hockey League had to create the exceptional player status distinction so Tavares’ development wouldn’t be stunted. And while there were some skeptics about whether a 15-year-old kid should be allowed to play in the OHL, Tavares silenced them, scoring 215 goals over four seasons with the Oshawa Generals and London Knights.

Enter, Victor Hedman. Hedman impressed for Sweden at the 2008 and '09 World Juniors, where he was the best player on both silver-medal-winning teams. Lauded for his top-end skating ability and offensive anticipation, Hedman had all the skills required of a new-age defenseman and was likened to Chris Pronger during the draft process.

"It was a little different for me; (Tavares) had been in the spotlight for so long," Hedman said in 2016 to Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times — now with The Athletic. "I didn't really have that playing back in Sweden and coming over here and seeing everyone, it was a little bit of an eye opener for me. He's a great guy; you can tell he's used to everything going around."

Tavares outplayed Hedman in the 2009 World Juniors, winning tournament MVP. Despite the loss, Hedman made enough of an impression due to his towering combination of speed and size, along with his proficiency in the Swedish Elite League with Modo that gave observers more than enough ammunition to build a case in his favour.

Islanders general manager Garth Snow entertained offers for the pick, particularly from the Lightning, briefly envisioning linking Tavares with his childhood friend, Steven Stamkos, who was selected first overall in 2008. It was some clever gamesmanship from Snow, particularly as some made the argument that Hedman’s positional value as a top-flight defender in the making might provide more long-term value than a goal-scoring savant like Tavares.

Snow’s act of deception paid off, as he was adamant on holding onto the pick and got his franchise center. Although Tavares was the choice all along inside New York’s draft room, it was enough of a debate that Tavares admitted genuine surprise about going No. 1

As for the Lightning, it worked out well in their favour. Tavares initially seemed like the superior prospect, as it took a few seasons for Hedman to blossom into an elite NHL defender. Boasting a resume that includes two Stanley Cup wins, a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Norris Trophy, Hedman will be moonwalking into the Hall of Fame. Not a bad consolation prize for Tampa.

Taylor Hall vs. Tyler Seguin, 2010

Taylor vs. Tyler. That’s all you needed to know for the majority of the 2010 NHL Draft cycle as the OHL stalwarts were pitted against each other until the Edmonton Oilers took the stage with card in hand.

Hall completed one of the best junior hockey careers ever, winning the Memorial Cup twice with the Windsor Spitfires, while becoming the first player to win tournament MVP in consecutive years. Along with his winning pedigree, Hall possessed world-class speed with a penchant to escape past defenders for breakaways, and it was pretty easy to swoon over the offensive prodigy.

Seguin was an excellent counterpart, tying Hall for the OHL scoring lead with 106 points during the 2009-10 season. During the initial rankings presented by the NHL Scouting Bureau, Seguin was ranked first among North American skaters, with Hall in second. Hall surpassed Seguin during the mid-term rankings, but Seguin took over the No. 1 spot in the Bureau’s final list. Even for the most attuned junior hockey observers, this was a decision that became the ultimate toss-up.

Hall was generally regarded as a player with higher upside with the penchant for the spectacular play, but showed a tendency to be susceptible to big hits. Seguin was listed as the superior playmaker, whose game may translate better to the modern NHL.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie provided the following assessments four days before the 2010 draft, preferring Hall over Seguin.

“What’s not to like? The only concern, and it’s a growing sentiment, is that Hall’s fearlessness/recklessness puts him in harm’s way too often and that he takes an incredible physical beating at the junior level, leaving himself vulnerable to big hits and potential injury,” McKenzie said of Hall during a TSN broadcast.

What about Seguin?

“He plays more of a perimeter game than Hall and is more cerebral than visceral, but the fact he doesn’t take the puck to the net as hard as Hall isn’t because he’s timid or fearful, it’s because he’s often able to pull up and break down defenses and make plays that lead to goals.”

As both players stood neck-and-neck for the top spot, the uncertainty surrounding the decisions — combined with both players’ scoring exploits at the OHL level — created a level of mania that’s usually reserved for boy bands on tour. Taylor vs. Tyler was a real phenomena, and both players, while laudatory of each other, were often reluctant to discuss the other player, having been inextricably linked for several years.

Edmonton decided to take Hall first, while Boston ran to the podium to select Seguin, both teams outwardly ecstatic about getting the top player on its respective board. You would think the comparison between both players would cease after draft day, but hockey evaluators were still undecided several years into their respective careers.

“I don’t know who I’d take today,” an unnamed NHL pro scout told The Hockey News in 2016. “They are both great players. The speed factor for both of them is the big thing. Seguin may have the better hands and Hall is more of a straight-line player, but I’d be happy to have either of them.”

In recent years, the balance has tipped in Hall’s favour, especially after winning the Hart Trophy in 2018, but it’s closer than you’d think. Hall is averaging 0.86 points per game (761 games), while Seguin has posted a 0.83 points per game (821 games) average. Both players have taken mercurial routes, as Hall has been traded several times in hopes of finding a long-term contender, whereas Seguin, once labeled as an off-ice problem, has been a stellar veteran presence for the Stars.

In short, Taylor vs. Tyler still rages on.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 25:  (L-R) NHL prospects Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall pose during the 2010 NHL Entry Draft at Staples Center on June 25, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Tyler Seguin, left, and Taylor Hall pose during the 2010 NHL Draft. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Auston Matthews vs. Patrik Laine, 2016

Auston Matthews, the current Hart Trophy winner and resident superstar for the Toronto Maple Leafs, has vastly outplayed Columbus Blue Jackets winger Patrik Laine throughout their seven NHL seasons. And though younger readers may scoff in disbelief, Matthews and Laine were considered equals leading up to draft night.

Both players are gifted with a rocket-like release and Matthews’ patented whip-like motion is the envy of forwards across the league. Laine showed a tendency to launch one-timers with supreme accuracy from the top of the circle in a way that may have conjured up the highlight reels of Alexander Ovechkin and Stamkos before him.

Matthews was considered the best player in his class for years but some questioned the caliber of competition the Arizona-born sniper faced until he joined the U.S. National Development Program. As a 17-year-old, Matthews posted 48 points in 24 games with the U.S. U-18 national team against United States Hockey League competition, then recorded 46 points in 36 games with Zurich SC of the Swiss-A league during his draft year. He was a boy amongst men, and was often the best player on the ice.

Laine emerged as a sharpshooter in his own right, scoring 17 goals and 33 points in 46 games with Tappara Tampere of the Finnish Elite League during the 2015-16 season. And while draft experts have warned against the idea of overvaluing a single-tournament performance during the World Juniors, this is where Laine truly shined. Laine scored seven goals and 13 points while leading Finland to the gold medal. Matthews finished with seven goals and 11 points of his own, but many thought Laine’s superior performance would be an indicator of his suitability in the NHL.

Matthews’ grasp on the top spot appeared to be slipping as Laine’s World Juniors performance reverberated in the back of scouts' minds. Laine then exploded in the Finnish Elite League playoffs and was named postseason MVP after notching 15 points in 18 games. An unnamed scout told McKenzie that they’d have to think about Laine as the No. 1 pick in February, and by the April rankings, two of the 10 scouts polled by McKenzie would take the Finnish winger over Matthews. Michael Traikos of the National Post argued that Laine was the true No. 1 player in the draft in an April 2016 piece.

Laine’s late surge wasn’t enough to dissuade the Maple Leafs from taking Matthews. And perhaps for good reason. Laine started his career on fire, prompting Jets fans to scream “Laine’s better” during an October 2016 matchup. But since his first two seasons where he scored a cumulative 80 goals, Laine has developed a reputation for being a streaky scorer who is indifferent to playing defense.

As for Matthews, well, he’s arguably the best player in the league and a top-10 defensive player, on a path to potentially becoming the greatest player in Maple Leafs history.

Some decisions aren’t worth overthinking, and that should perhaps give the Wright camp some hope going into Thursday evening.

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