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The 2022 NHL Draft exists in a vacuum

Past experiences no longer matter when you step up to the podium.

France v Slovakia - 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images

The 2022 NHL Draft takes place this week, and for weeks — if not months — Montreal Canadiens fans have been hoping that the season-long debacle that saw the team finish last and then win the draft lottery wasn’t all for naught.

There appeared to be a consensus top player available in Shane Wright, and the rest would be history.

Quickly, a new contender emerged in Slovak winger Juraj Slafkovsky. Slafkovsky has been on the radar for the 2022 Draft since emerging as a 16-year-old at last year’s World Junior Hockey Championship. His Olympics moved him up draft boards, and his World Championships put him firmly in the top three.

A late riser playing senior hockey in Finland getting buzz and perhaps moving ahead of the consensus pick has brought back a lot of bad memories for Montreal Canadiens fans.

Back in 2018, the Canadiens moved up from fifth to third in the draft lottery, earning the right to choose whoever they wanted after the top two picks — Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov — were accounted for. Filip Zadina was widely seen as the third player in the draft but other candidates emerged like Quinn Hughes, Brady Tkachuk, and a centre from Finland named Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

We all know what happened, and fans to this day are still clamouring for Tkachuk who was anything but a conventional pick himself at fourth overall. Zadina, as it turns out, fell to sixth and has also yet to meet expectations so far.

While there are some similarities between the two stories, Slafkovsky’s draft stock is higher than Kotkaniemi’s ever was. Slafkovsky, despite being third in EOTP’s Consensus Rankings, had more #1 rankings than Logan Cooley, who was ranked second. He also had the most first-place votes in Bob McKenzie’s draft rankings which polls NHL scouts. Kotkaniemi’s highest ranking in his draft year was one third place ranking, he was fifth in McKenzie’s ranking, and eighth in the consensus rankings that year. (Tkachuk, for his part, was fifth in the consensus rankings behind Zadina and Hughes).

People will point to Slafkovsky’s worse production than Kotkaniemi (or Patrik Laine, or Kaapo Kakko) as a potential warning sign, but you don’t draft a player for what he does at 16, 17, or even 18 years old. You draft a player for what he will be three or four years down the road. That’s not to say Slafkovsky would be my choice (he wouldn’t) or that he will succeed (he may not). It’s only to say that if he fails, it won’t be because of Kotkaniemi, or Kakko, or Laine either.

In fact, if Slafkovsky ends up being picked first and puts up numbers similar to, say, Tkachuk, there will be people calling him a disappointment. Tkachuk has reached 20 goals in three of his four seasons (only the shortened 2021-22 season saw him fall short, with 17 goals in 56 games). The Senators, however, have not finished higher than 23rd in the league, or sixth in their division.

This draft has been ragged on for what it isn’t as opposed to what it is. There doesn’t seem to be a generational player in this draft (which is normal since generational by definition happens, you know, once a generation). There doesn’t seem to be a sure-fire franchise player, either. Now history shows that there will be someone who emerges from this draft.

The 2017 Draft also had a consensus first overall pick and a late riser (Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier) and both were seen as the best prospects in a subpar crop. Since then, Miro Heiskanen, Elias Pettersson, Nick Suzuki, and Jake Oettinger have emerged as top players from that class.

Oh, right, and Cale Makar, who has emerged as the best defenceman in the league, and won the Conn Smythe award in the Colorado Avalanche’s Stanley Cup run.

People are looking at Slafkovsky, or Shane Wright, or Cooley, or anyone else in this class and saying that it would be a disappointment if the Canadiens’ pick doesn’t end up being a top line player. That a first overall pick has to be a top player for it to be worth it.

That may be true, and the Canadiens may not end up drafting the player who ends up working out, but comparing the 2022 first overall pick to the one in 2019, or 2023, or 2015, is irrelevant.

Sure if the Canadiens had the choice to pick between Wright, or 2023-eligible Connor Bedard, they would probably pick Bedard. But they don’t. They aren’t the first team to get the first pick in a less-favourable draft, and they certainly aren’t the last.

That doesn’t take away from what Wright is as a player, or Cooley, or Slafkovsky. They are in the top three for a reason, and all project to be solid NHL players. Regardless of who your preferred option is, take nothing away from the others. Everyone knows that the Bell Centre crowd and social media will be quick to judge the Canadiens pick on Thursday night no matter who it is (or if the pick gets traded).

In reality, the debate about Wright, Slafkovsky, or Cooley is moot if the best forward in the draft happens to be neither of them. It’s entirely possible that the best player in the draft is not even a forward, or not even a first-round pick, say, Brayden Point in 2014.

If the Canadiens hit a homerun with their picks on Thursday (whether at first or 26th) or any of the 12 other picks they currently hold on Friday, the draft will be looked back at as a success. However, to further the metaphor, a week from now, we won’t know where the ball lands. In fact, the pitch will have just left the pitcher’s hand.

Realistically, though, the Canadiens can survive if the pick at #1 is good instead of great, say a double, or even a solid single, instead of a homerun. They just can’t afford to swing and miss.