Shane Wright could be missing piece for Canadiens to return to contention

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Shane Wright is the consensus top pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Shane Wright is the consensus top pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The Montreal Canadiens won the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery, giving the franchise first dibs at coveted prospect Shane Wright.

Wright has been the consensus first-overall pick in the eyes of scouts and media since he joined the OHL as a 15-year-old after gaining exception status prior to the 2019-20 season. Since then, Wright has done nothing but cement his status as an elite two-way NHL-ready prospect.

As a rookie with the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs in 2019-20, he was named the CHL Rookie of the Year. He followed that up by leading Canada’s U18 team to gold at the men’s World Championship, scoring 14 points in only five games. This season with Kingston, Wright scored 94 points in 63 games.

It’s an impressive resume for the draft-eligible prospect. Montreal, who finished last overall in the NHL this season with an abysmal 22-49-11 record, has budding stars in Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki at forward. Adding Wright down the middle with Suzuki would give the team a formidable 1-2 punch for the next decade.

While the hockey world sees Wright as the consensus pick, the gap between him and the rest of the pack has narrowed considerably, with some scouts now favouring Slovakian forward Juraj Slafkovský or American pivot Logan Cooley.

According to Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes, the team is not ready to tip its cap in the direction of Wright just yet, saying that just because the Burlington, Ont., product has been the wire-to-wire favourite does not mean he’ll be the player they pick. That decision will be guided by Montreal’s scouting staff, not the general public.

“You always go with your evaluation first and if there’s a player we feel is the best player available in the draft, then that’s the player we’re going to with,” Hughes told the media after the draft lottery finished.

“We’re excited to have the first-overall pick because we have the opportunity to draft a player who’s going to have an important role in the future of Montreal Canadiens,” Hughes continued. “When, how, that’s to be determined.”

While Wright’s success is hard to argue, overlooking Slafkovský and Cooley would be a mistake. Slafkovský was the 2022 Beijing Olympics MVP. The 6-foot-4 winger scored seven goals in seven games for the Slovaks playing against professional players from across the globe and improved as the season progressed playing pro hockey in Finland’s Liiga with TPS.

Cooley has been a consistent offensive driver for the USNTDP this year and was a force at the World U18 men’s tournament. He’s destined for the University of Minnesota next year. Hughes also has intimate knowledge of Cooley, having seen him play in recent seasons on the same team as his son Jack.

The New Jersey Devils, who already have a slew of talented young players in their prospect pool made a big jump in the lottery, climbing three places to win the second-overall selection behind Montreal, while Arizona, Seattle, and Philadelphia rounded out the top five.

Aside from Wright, Slafkovský and Cooley, another tier of top 10 talent has solidified in recent months. This group includes defenders Simon Nemec and David Jiricek, as well as Finnish forward Joakim Kemell.

Should Montreal stick to the playbook and select Wright, he could be the missing piece for a franchise desperate to return to contention. Looking at recent Stanley Cup championship rosters, having two elite players down the middle is the standard.

In their three Stanley Cup wins since 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins have featured Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin centring their top two lines. Contenders this year like the Toronto Maple Leafs (Auston Matthews and John Tavares), and Colorado Avalanche (Nathan MacKinnon and Nazem Kadri) are trying to duplicate this path.

Perhaps the player Wright draws the most comparisons to is Boston Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron. Bergeron, a future Hall of Famer, helped Boston win the 2011 Stanley Cup, is a four-time Selke winner, and has won both the Mark Messier Leadership Award and King Clancy Trophy as the league’s top humanitarian. He’s also a member of the fabled Triple Gold club, having won gold with Canada at the World Juniors, World Championships, and Olympic Games.

For Montreal, adding a player of this ilk would be a draft day victory, and for Canadiens fans, watching Nick Suzuki and Shane Wright at centre would provide entertainment and a winning recipe for years to come.

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