TRAIKOS: Unpredictable and underwhelming — handicapping this year’s NHL Entry Draft

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If there’s one word to describe this year’s NHL Entry Draft, it would be unpredictable.

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With a month remaining, scouts still aren’t quite sure whether Kingston Frontenacs centre Shane Wright, Slovakian winger Juraj Slafkovsky or U.S. National Development Team centre Logan Cooley will be the No. 1 overall pick. Or whether Winnipeg Ice teammates Matthew Savoie and Conor Geekie or Cutter Gauthier (U.S. Development Team) will sneak into the Top 3. Or even if a Russian, such as Ivan Miroschnichenko, who was recently diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, will further disrupt the order of selection.

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“This is going to be a very unpredictable draft year,” NHL Central Scouting’s Dan Marr said at last weekend’s scouting combine in Buffalo. “I think this is going to be one of the most unpredictable in a long time.”

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Another word to describe it? Underwhelming.

There’s a big reason why scouts are torn over which player is worthy of the top selection. Unlike next year, when teams are already preparing to tank for a chance at selecting Canada’s Connor Bedard or Russia’s Matvei Michkov, this year’s crop appears to lack a generational talent.

There is no Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews. But like the 2017 draft, in which Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick went No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, followed by Miro Heiskanen, Cale Makar and Elias Pettersson, with Nick Suzuki and Robert Thomas falling outside the top-10, there could be plenty of hidden depth.

“There’s not going to be a player of the decade coming out of this draft,” said Marr. “But there are going to be a lot of players who turn out to be all-stars down the road. It’s a deep draft in the first round. If you have the luxury of having more than one pick … at 15 you’re going to get a guy who you might have had in the Top 10. So you can take a little bit of a riskier chance on that pick.”

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That’s good news for Ottawa, which holds the No. 7 pick — although GM Pierre Dorion already appears to be accepting trade offers — as well as Winnipeg (No. 14) and Vancouver (No. 15). Then again, with COVID-19 wiping out large chunks of the past couple of years, it also increases the chances of swinging and missing on players who simply haven’t had enough time to develop or showcase their skills.

“The NHL clubs realize how difficult it’s been on these players,” said Marr. “In this draft class, we missed the underage year. There’s some players from the ’03 draft class that some teams didn’t get to see … it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s more 19-year-olds taken in the second go-around of this draft.”

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THE BEST OF THE REST

Heading into next month’s draft, all eyes will be on the Montreal Canadiens, who with the No. 1 overall pick will ultimately set the draft order. But the uncertainty doesn’t end there.

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In fact, it just gets more complicated.

“The first three teams that pick in the draft could get the No. 1 player on their list,” said Marr, adding that every team’s list is going to look drastically different.

In other words, expect the unexpected.

Aside from Wright, Slafkovsky and Cooley, there are a number of players who could sneak into the Top 3, including Savoie and Geekie, as well as Gauthier.

“Matt is the best natural goal scorer in this draft,” Marr said of Savoie, who led WHL rookies with 90 points in 65 games. “He’s got the speed, the talent, but he’s also got the savvy and the smarts. He’s competitive. He’s not a big guy, but he’s not intimidated by any situations. He’s the guy you want to put on the ice when you need a goal and he’s going to generate offence.”

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The 6-foot-3 Geekie, whose brother plays for the Seattle Kraken, is projected as a power forward in the style of Mark Scheifele.

“He has that size and that complete net-front game,” said Marr. “All he needs right now is that strength.”

Gauthier, who performed the ninth-most pull-ups in the combine and finished in the top-5 in the Wingate test, which measures peak anaerobic power, is another player whose physical attributes could propel him up the order.

“He is a player that NHL clubs will covet,” said Marr. “He belongs in that conversation (for No. 1). He’s the complete package with size, skills, smarts.”

ARE THE RUSSIANS COMING?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could mean that teams pass on players whose playing future in the NHL is growing increasingly uncertain. Further complicating matters is that scouts haven’t had a chance to see the prospects play, since Russia was banned from the several key tournaments.

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That being said, Danila Yurov is still listed as the seventh-best European skater, with 16 others included in the list of 147 non-North American players.

“None of us know what’s going to go on, what it’s going to be like two or three years from now,” said Marr. “If you’re sitting there and you’ve got a solid prospect for the NHL, are you going to go by him, or do you step up and take him and cross your fingers and hope that the world is in a different place in a couple of years from now?”

One player who might cause some extra second-guessing is Ivan Miroschnichenko.

At one time, the 6-foot-1 winger was considered a threat to go in the Top 5. But that was before Russia invaded Ukraine. More importantly, it was before he was diagnosed with cancer. Thankfully, it appears that his health is less of a concern than it was several months ago.

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“Ivan was actually still undergoing treatments in Germany during the Under-18 tournament and his agents had him in town so a number of NHL clubs were able to meet with him there and he was still showing effects of the treatment,” Marr said of Miroschnichenko, who is the seventh-ranked European skater. “But the treatment was 100% successful and he’s been back and cleared to train full load within the tolerance level. He’s not scheduled to go back for more treatments. He’s just training for next season.”

THE WRIGHT STUFF

With 14 points in 11 playoff games, it’s difficult to say Shane Wright didn’t show up in the playoffs. But considering he only had three goals for Kingston, which got knocked out in the second round to North Bay, some scouts were left wanting more from the projected top prospect.

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“You don’t want to let one series of games or one tournament influence you,” said Marr. “You go to the games and you want to see a highlight reel goal or an all-star performance every game and that just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen in the National Hockey League, so when you see him out there competing with all his skills and his assets, as long as he’s getting his chances he’s doing his part.”

DESERT BLOOMS AGAIN

Ten years ago, the fact that Cutter Gauthier was born in Scottsdale, Ariz., would be a big deal. But that was before Auston Matthews went No. 1 overall in 2015. Since then, several players, including Leafs’ 2021 draft pick Matthew Knies, have grown out of the desert.

“It’s getting better and better. The names out of the desert are coming out more often,” said Gauthier, whose minor-league journeyman father was born in Sudbury. “It’s pretty cool to see Auston’s path and how well he’s done in the National Hockey League. And it’s pretty cool to see how our paths are aligned.”

SMALL TOWN BOY

Strathclair, Manitoba might not have a population of more than 200 residents. But considering that one of those residents is playing in the NHL — and another is a Top 5 prospect — the tiny settlement is becoming more and more well known.

“There’s like 137 (people) just in the town. The municipality’s got quite a bit more. I think 700,” said Geekie. “Growing up, playing with seven girls, three boys on my team, I think that’s something that really comes to heart, trying to put my place on the map as much as I can.”

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twitter.com/Michael_Traikos

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