The NHL draft can be nice and tidy when there’s a franchise player at the top of the board like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, or when there’s a consensus choice like Owen Power was for the Buffalo Sabres last year.
When there isn’t, like in the 2022 NHL draft scheduled for Montreal’s Bell Centre beginning Thursday night (7 ET, ESPN), things can get a little messy.
There isn’t a generational talent in the draft. Some scouts feel there isn’t even an immediate top-line player in the draft, either.
The top choice for most of the season was center Shane Wright of the Ontario Hockey League. He’s a tremendous prospect. He’s just not a generational talent. “The first thing I would say about Shane: You’re not going to get this spectacular flash and dash. I’m not saying that negatively. He’s just not a Nathan MacKinnon or Connor McDavid type. That’s not who he is,” TSN director of scouting Craig Button said.
Then there’s the “Russian factor.” For years, NHL teams have been hesitant to draft prospects playing in Russia because getting them signed and playing in North America could sometimes be an arduous and lengthy process. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year has accelerated those fears, as NHL general managers worry about everything from travel restrictions to military service requirements to the fact that the NHL and the Kontinental Hockey League do not currently have a transfer agreement.
The Montreal Canadiens hold the first overall pick in the draft. The expectation is that they’ll select Wright. But there’s been considerable speculation that it could be Slovakian winger Juraj Slafkovsky instead.
I can’t remember the last time we had this much intrigue at the top of the draft. The 2017 draft comes close, with the debate between Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick. Patrick was the top-ranked skater in the final NHL Central Scouting Bureau rankings, but Hischier went first overall.
Here is the ESPN mock for the 2022 NHL draft, based on pundit forecasts, conversations with draft insiders from around the hockey world and our own gut reactions to team needs.
1. Montreal Canadiens: Shane Wright, C, Kingston (OHL)
It seems like there has been more discussion about why the Canadiens shouldn’t select Wright first overall than why they should. His path to the draft was COVID-interrupted, as the 2020-21 Canadian junior season was canceled. It may have hurt his development. It certainly impacted his evaluation. Wright had 94 points in 63 games this season and was called a disappointment, to the point where his first overall status was in question.
What the Canadiens would get here is an outstanding two-way center who skates well and has a skill set that will scale up quickly for the NHL at a position of need for Montreal. “The hockey sense is superb and the precision with which he plays the game. That’s why I’ve compared him more to a Patrice Bergeron,” Button said.
The Canadiens have considered both Juraj Slafkovsky and Logan Cooley for this pick. In the case of Slafkovsky, they’ve heavily considered him. The smoke around the Habs selecting the Slovakian winger was so thick that both Corey Pronman of The Athletic and the majority of the scouts surveyed by TSN draft expert Bob McKenzie had him first overall. But I think it’s also undeniable that the Slafkovsky smoke has increased as the draft has drawn near, with Montreal knowing the Devils are sitting at No. 2 with a clear need for a winger instead of a center. It’s hard to imagine Montreal not picking first at their own draft, but if the Devils are desperate enough to sweeten the pot and flip picks, I’m sure the fans would understand.
Still, we think the pick here is Wright.
2. New Jersey Devils: Juraj Slafkovsky, LW, TPS (Finland)
The 6-4 winger has the opposite résumé from Wright. While the center had limited international experience, Slafkovsky’s best impressions were made at world championships and especially at the Beijing Olympics, where he had seven goals in seven games for a stunning bronze medal win (and tournament MVP honors). But then he had only five goals in 31 games with TPS in Liiga, leaving many baffled by that lack of production. Ice time and usage were factors, at least in the first half of that season.
He’s not going to run over anybody despite his size; in fact, it’s his speed at that size that makes him exceptional. Slafkovsky is incredibly skilled, but drafting him second overall would be for what he could become rather than what he is. As someone put it to me the other day, he’s got “all the tools without the toolbox” at the moment. Something else he has: a tremendous personality, as was evident in Beijing.
If Montreal ends up taking Slafkovsky first overall, what do the Devils do? They could trade the pick. They could switch to another position like defense, where there are a few solid candidates. They could draft Cooley, adding another U.S. national development program product to the Hughes boys.
But don’t sleep on the Devils just snatching up Wright if he’s there. Yes, they have Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier at center, setting them at the position through at least 2027. But adding Wright, on a rookie contract, to that depth chart would be outstanding. Remember: GM Tom Fitzgerald learned under Penguins GM Ray Shero, who picked Jordan Staal second overall in 2006 despite already having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin up the gut.
3. Arizona Coyotes: Logan Cooley, C, USNTDP
Chris Peters thinks Cutter Gauthier, another USNTDP player, could end up in this spot. While we shouldn’t dismiss that possibility, they also couldn’t go wrong with Cooley here. In the past, his 5-10 frame might have been a hindrance. Not in today’s NHL. The strong two-way center cites Patrick Kane as an inspiration for his play, but admits he needs some work on his long-range shooting to hit that level. We’ll leave open the possibility that the Coyotes draft one of the defensemen here. They sorta need everything at this point, and don’t have much in the way of defensemen. But they have the picks to find them.
One caveat: Cutter Gauthier is from Scottsdale. It would be very on-brand for a Montreal-based draft to have a team reach slightly to select a hometown boy.
4. Seattle Kraken: Simon Nemec, D, Nitra (Slovakia)
After securing a franchise center in Matty Beniers in their first NHL draft, the Kraken address their back end. The battle of David Jiricek vs. Simon Nemec, both right-handed defensemen, comes down to this: Nemec is the better puck mover, while Jiricek has a better shot at the top of a power play. Jiricek has a frame that can fill out over time and be the more physical of the two. Nemec feels like the more “plug-and-play” option, with six points in eight games at the world championship, and has played three seasons as a pro in Slovakia. Robert Kron, the Kraken’s director of amateur scouting and a Czech native, knows Jiricek well. But they’ve scouted Nemec thoroughly. GM Ron Francis drafted for size last year, and the 6-3 Jiricek fits that bill. But our hunch says Nemec.
Besides having a name that seems like it was created in a lab for a future Philadelphia Flyers player — in reality, it’s originated from his grandparents on his mom’s side — Gauthier is a 6-4 forward with an incredible shot release. He played with Cooley on the development team. If he’s here, I think the Flyers opt to draft Gauthier over either of the defensemen.
6. Columbus Blue Jackets (from Chicago): David Jiricek, D, Plzen (Czech Republic)
It’s likely either Nemec or Jiricek here, whoever is still on the board. The Blue Jackets would do well with either of them here. Turning Seth Jones into a blue-chip defensive prospect that’s almost a decade younger is some wizardry from Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen.
7. Ottawa Senators: Joakim Kemell, RW, JYP (Finland)
Kemell might be the best goal scorer in the draft. He’s also 5-9 on the wing, which makes this prediction a little specious given the way the Senators have opted for size in recent years. Kemell had 15 goals in his first pro season in Liiga. He’s got terrific hands and a dynamic offensive game, but how that projects to the NHL has been a mystery scouts have been trying to solve for a while. The Sens have some solid young centers and can add to the wing.
8. Detroit Red Wings: Marco Kasper, C, Rogle (Sweden)
The words “consensus choice” and “Steve Yzerman” don’t usually coexist. That said, too many pundits and insiders see this match between a versatile, high-character Austrian center and the Red Wings for us not to concede the choice here. He’s a terrific competitor, albeit with a lower ceiling than some of the other options available here. Another name to watch here: Matthew Savoie.
9. Buffalo Sabres: Jonathan Lekkerimaki, RW, Djurgarden (Sweden)
The Sabres should go with offense here, and likely on the wing. Of the available options, Lekkerimaki — which, we’ll admit, does sound like a Swedish “Letterkenny” spinoff — gets the nod. He had 15 points in eight games to lead the under-18 world championship, including five goals. He’ll need a little time to cook with just one season of pro hockey to his credit, but he’s got some goal-scoring upside.
10. Anaheim Ducks: Conor Geekie, C, Winnipeg (WHL)
At 6-4 and with his skills set, Geekie’s skating ability has created some real questions about his eventual place in the NHL — from in the lineup to positionally, as some believe he could end up on the wing. But he’s got high-end skills with the puck. Hey, didn’t the Ducks just say goodbye to a 6-4 center recently?
11. San Jose Sharks: Kevin Korchinski, D, Seattle (WHL)
There’s every chance that Korchinski, a 6-2, left-handed defenseman, is gone by the time the Sharks select; heck, their down-state neighbors might skate away with him at No. 10. He’s got a ton of offensive upside, as shown in his 65-point season in 67 games. The Sharks don’t have much on the left side in the pipeline.
12. Columbus Blue Jackets: Matthew Savoie, C, Winnipeg (WHL)
The Blue Jackets go with defense on their first pick and follow up with one of the most talented offensive players in the draft with their second. He’s got speed and skill. A fitting sequel to selecting Cole Sillinger at No. 12 last season.
13. New York Islanders: Pavel Mintyukov, LHD, Saginaw (OHL)
Lou Lamoriello would be the guy to draft the first Russia native. The Islanders could use a quality blueliner in their prospect pipeline, and Mintyukov is a solid offensive defenseman. They could also use immediate help on the left side at the NHL level (on an inexpensive contract), and could fast-track Mintyukov into such a spot.
14. Winnipeg Jets: Frank Nazar, C, USNTDP
Nazar is one of those players that could go anywhere from eighth overall down to the mid-teens. If he’s available here, the Jets would do well to add his dynamic skating and solid hands to their depth chart.
15. Vancouver Canucks: Noah Ostlund, C/RW, Djurgarden Jr. (Sweden)
Ostlund has put up solid offensive numbers in junior hockey, although there’s limited work history one level up. He’s got tremendous skill and creativity but can be inconsistent. We’ll assume the Canucks front office has a slight insight into Swedish prospects.
16. Buffalo Sabres (from Vegas Golden Knights): Brad Lambert, F, Pelicans (Finland)
Lambert is the wild card of the draft. At one point, he was a seen as a top-three pick. Then he struggled with JYP of Liiga, moved to the Lahti Pelicans and then struggled there, too, finishing with four goals in 49 games total between both teams. But his skill is incredible, especially his speed. The Sabres have the kind of prospect pool where they can take a swing here, and should swing away for Lambert with the pick they acquired in the Jack Eichel deal. One interesting note: Lambert’s junior rights were recently acquired by WHL Seattle.
17. Nashville Predators: Owen Pickering, D, Swift Current (WHL)
Pickering is now listed at 6-5 and had 33 points in 62 games last season. GM David Poile hasn’t drafted a defenseman in the first two rounds since he took Dante Fabbro and Samuel Girard back in 2016. He should really do it more often.
18. Dallas Stars: Lian Bichsel, D, Leksand (Sweden)
Bichsel is another defenseman who stands 6-5, plays a tough physical game and gained solid experience playing in the Swedish Hockey League and the Champions League last season. He projects to be a defenseman in the NHL, but he also plays well in transition.
With two first-round picks after the Kevin Fiala trade, the Wild are in a great position to help their organizational depth — like at center. Gaucher is 6-3, and a sure bet for the NHL with a strong, heavy game and some offensive spark.
20. Washington Capitals: Jiri Kulich, C, Karlovy Vary (Czech)
The Capitals could go defense here, but it would be hard to pass up the reigning MVP of the IIHF world under-18 championship, with nine goals in the tournament. This would make the third time in four years they drafted a center.
The Penguins have a rather shallow prospect pool, and that’s especially true on the back end. This could be Chesley — a Shattuck St. Mary’s product (Sidney Crosby’s alma mater!) earmarked for the University of Minnesota — or Denton Mateychuk of Moose Jaw. The edge goes to Chesley, who is a right-handed defenseman.
22. Anaheim Ducks (from Boston Bruins): Denton Mateychuk, D, Moose Jaw (WHL)
Assuming they take Geekie or another forward at No. 10 overall, we’ll assume the Ducks will go with a defenseman here. Mateychuk loves to get involved in the play. You could see him flying in transition with Ducks like Trevor Zegras for years to come.
23. St. Louis Blues: Jimmy Snuggerud, RW, USNTDP
The Blues take the Minnesota kid right before the Wild have a chance to snag him. Snuggerud’s claim to fame is goal-scoring, but he offers much more than that in his 6-2 frame. The Blues’ real need organizationally is in the middle vs. on the wing. Could they slide Snuggerud to center?
24. Minnesota Wild: Rutger McGroarty, RW, USNTDP
The Wild land a winger who had 35 goals in 54 games for the U.S. national under-18 team. There are some questions about his skating ability at the NHL level.
Terrific instincts, a shifty skater and delightfully labeled “stocky” by some scouts. The Leafs would be thrilled if Howard lasted this long in the draft.
26. Montreal Canadiens (from CGY): Liam Ohgren, LW/C, Djurgarden Jr. (Sweden)
Liam Ohgren and Noah Ostlund are the top Swedish center prospects in the draft. Ohgren is bigger and has a better all-around game. He’s more of a goal-scorer than a playmaker. But he might have a bit less upside than Ostlund, and hence lands here.
27. Arizona Coyotes (from CAR via MTL): Danila Yurov, RW, Magnitogorsk (Russia)
Provided the “Russia factor” doesn’t interfere here, the Coyotes get themselves a finisher. Had he gotten more minutes in the KHL, and with a different international situation with Russia, Yurov could have been a top-10 pick.
28. Buffalo Sabres (from Florida Panthers): Maveric Lamoureux, D, Drummondville (QMJHL)
The Sabres take a 6-7 giant of a defenseman in Lamoureux, who has good mobility but is very much a project. Or, given his dimensions, a tall task.
29. Edmonton Oilers: Jagger Firkus, RW, Moose Jaw (WHL)
He had 36 goals in 66 games for the Warriors last season, which is the kind of finishing ability you’d like to see eventually line up with the most skilled offensive player of his generation. The drawback is that he’s listed at 5-10.
30. Winnipeg Jets (from New York Rangers): Sam Rinzel, D, USHL
A long-term project who played in high school in Minnesota and the USHL last season. Rinzel is 6-4, a smooth skater and has a right-hand shot.
31. Tampa Bay Lightning: Ivan Miroshnichenko, LW, Omsk Krylia (Russia)
Even with the current state of relations with Russia, it’s hard to imagine someone not taking a chance on this 6-1 truck who can skate like the wind. The Lightning are living in the now and can wait for Miroshnichenko — which they will, given his development curve. Note that Miroshnichenko had a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis earlier this year, but has completed his treatments and returned to training.
32. Arizona Coyotes (from Colorado Avalanche): Lane Hutson, D, USNTDP
Hutson is a teammate of earlier Coyotes pick Logan Cooley, and an immensely skilled blueliner with 63 points in 60 games. He’s a gifted playmaker and a skater that knows how to weave around defenders … who also happens to be 5-8. This is right around where you shoot your shot on a player like this if you’re the Coyotes, who need outside-the-box thinking and this kind of talent in their system.