Habsent Minded 4.62: Part 2 — How important is being NHL-ready for first overall pick?

As we continue to discuss the upcoming draft, we ponder how much weight being able to make an impact next season should carry.

Habsent Minded is a podcast series on all things Montreal Canadiens. In the latest episode, Patrik Bexell was joined by Hadi Kalakeche, Matt Drake, Jared Book, and Anton Rasegård for a round-table discussion on the first overall pick for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. In this second part of four, the panel explores whether Juraj Slafkovský is more NHL-ready than Shane Wright, whether that impacts who the Canadiens should select, and what should be expected next year from either of the two top draft prospects.

Patrik Bexell, European Correspondent: While understanding that comparing between leagues is really difficult, whether between junior and senior leagues or between different junior leagues, who is more NHL-ready right now, Shane Wright or Juraj Slafkovský? Who makes the bigger immediate impact at the NHL level?

Matt Drake, Staff Writer/Editor: If we assume that Slafkovský is more NHL-ready than Wright, does anyone legitimately expect Slafkovský to show up and turn Montreal into a playoff team? I don’t think so (not unless Carey Price recaptures his Vezina Trophy-winning form). Therefore, we have to go to what Martin St. Louis said: we don’t necessarily want the best player for next year, we want the best player for the future. If the Canadiens legitimately believe that Slafkovský is the better player even in that context, they should take him by all means. But I think the guy that gives the Habs the best chance of winning a Stanley Cup in the long run is Wright.

What are the expectations for him next season? I honestly don’t know. I think he’ll play in the NHL. But Montreal is in a good place where they don’t have to keep him here. They could give him the nine-game tryout and then send him back to Kingston, tank another year, and get a shot at drafting Connor Bedard — whom everyone thinks is a generational talent. As an aside, I’m really excited about the World Juniors rescheduled for August, because I think Joshua Roy is going to make that team. If Hockey Canada puts him on Shane Wright’s wing, that could be a sneak preview of Habs training camp, preseason, and maybe beyond.

Hadi Kalakeche, Catching the Torch series, Assoc. Editor & QMJHL Regional Scout - DobberProspects: I like to approach this question from a pros and cons perspective, and I think sending Wright back to the OHL has more pros than cons. First, he missed a year of development [due to the pandemic] and I think having that extra year to be able to consolidate, and to hopefully run the OHL into dust and absolutely dominate like we know he can, that will be good for his confidence. Second, I’m not sure how good it would be for him to stay at the NHL level, given how young the Canadiens’ blue line will be next year. You have Jordan Harris, Kaiden Guhle, Mattias Norlinder, and a couple of other guys who are going to be competing for spots. As a result, a lot of these guys are probably going to make the team but not necessarily stay in the lineup for prolonged stretches, rotating in and out because of their youth. Wright’s a guy who likes to circle down and help his defenders when it comes to defensive zone coverage, and that might not work because he’d be working with not only inexperienced defenders, but inexperienced defenders who are swapping in and out of the lineup.

Besides, what’s the rush? Like Matt said, 2023 is going to be the best draft in recent member. You’ve got Bedard, you’ve got [Matvei] Michkov, you’ve got [Adam] Fantilli, and all three are going to be outstanding NHL players. For me, the worst case scenario for the Habs would be sending Wright to the OHL, tanking for another year, getting a great draft pick, and coming back even stronger — that’s not so bad at all.

Patrik: Jared, as someone who covers the AHL, is it a big deal that Wright can’t be sent there?

Jared Book, Deputy Managing Editor: They’ve played with that rule a little bit because of the pandemic, but I don’t think change will come in time to accommodate Wright. Really, he’s the perfect example of a guy who needs a level between the OHL and the NHL. While it’s very unrealistic at this point, I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing him go to Europe. I just feel like he needs to be challenged more, and I think that might explain why his point totals weren’t so high this year — he was trying to do things other than just play his best hockey. I don’t want to phrase that as a character issue — he wasn’t bored or anything — and obviously I’m not in his head so I don’t know for sure, but I just feel like he’s looking for ways to challenge himself.

One thing is that we don’t know how this front office approaches development. If we go back to the Marc Bergevin era, precedent says that Wright or whoever they pick would be in the NHL next season, and I’m not even convinced that Slafkovský should be in the NHL next year, although with him, you have more options including both the AHL and Europe. So yeah, the AHL would be ideal, but you can still examine Wright (or whoever they select) in training camp, in practice, and in preseason both with and against NHLers.

I also wouldn’t mind seeing him in the NHL because of that desire to challenge himself that I mentioned earlier. The defence might be a little young, but if you look down the middle, you have [Nick] Suzuki, [Christian] Dvorak, and [Jake] Evans. Wright slots in pretty well with those three, and given that Martin St. Louis is in charge, he won’t be overburdened with expectations either. Additionally, Wright is the type of player who improves — and by that I mean his tools become more impactful — when he plays with better players. You can see how his numbers went up when he played with [Martin] Chromiak, and it wasn’t because Chromiak carried him. Look at Nick Suzuki, when he came up, he was on the fourth line, but he still played better than at the OHL level because fourth line NHLers are pretty good hockey players, and so he never went to the AHL.

This is where training camp becomes important, where we can turn hypotheticals into assessments. Training camp, and especially the preseason, gives you an idea of “is this person overrmatched?” “Is this person ready to help the team?” “What’s best for this person’s development?” And the Canadiens have a lot of people involved with development right now, and if you send a player back to the OHL, you lose access to those resources and that kind of oversight and control. I’m not sure if that’s something a lot of teams, nevermind the Canadiens, want to do with a first overall pick.

Matt: On that point Jared made about needing a challenge, the thing with that Kingston team this year, is that they had ten rookies. Of the ten, I think seven of them were born in 2005. So I think it’s a little bit ridiculous when people look at Kingston being eliminated in the second round as a knock against Wright. But that also means that he still has a challenge left for him at the OHL level. The team is going to be more experienced next year — they’ll lose some players like Jordan Frasca, Zayde Wisdom, and Lucas Edmonds — which means that Wright will be tasked with being the leader of a team with more expectation and whether he can handle that sort of responsibility. On the flip side too, not having to shelter teammates means that Wright should be expected to have that offensive explosion that everyone was hoping for this year.

My argument is really, if you get to the end of that nine game period before you have to burn a year off his entry-level contract, and the team is 1-8 and Wright is having uneven performances, then you should send him back to the OHL because he does still have things to prove at that level. I think the only way you should keep him with Montreal is if you’ve decided after nine games that he’s unquestionably an NHL player.

Anton Rasegård, Staff Writer and Podcaster: This question is magnified because we’re all still kind of shell-shocked from Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and even Alex Galchenyuk, and how they didn’t develop the way we had hoped. A lot of people say that it’s because they made the jump into the NHL too early, but we can’t automatically transfer that to every player. It didn’t happen with Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, it didn’t happen with Rasmus Dahlin or Auston Matthews. At the same time, it did happen a bit to Kaapo Kakko, and he looked very pro-ready when he was drafted. Like Jared said, we’ll have to look at training camp. If Wright comes in and is challenging Nick Suzuki, he’s clearly NHL-ready and should stay up.

It’s a good thing that the new head coach and front office seems to at least say that they want to build this in the right way, to start with a foundation. I think that means that if Wright were to play in the NHL next season and then run into a situation like Kotkaniemi where he hits a bit of a wall after 30-40 games, they would just sit him for a little while, and he can learn just from being there while he recharges. And if he’s not NHL-ready, then no problem, he’s going to go back to the OHL, and he’s going to have all the support in the world from this organization.

Jared: Anton mentioned Kotkaniemi and Galchenyuk, but they both had really good NHL seasons as 18-year-olds. I think the issue with the Bergevin regime in particular is that he kept saying that the NHL is not a development league, and while that’s not incorrect, it doesn’t mean that development does not happen in the NHL. And I will die on this hill: the issue with Galchenyuk and Kotkaniemi was that neither improved while in the NHL, and that’s the responsibility of the organization. I don’t think that you can look at what these two players did in their 18-, 19-, even 20-year-old seasons and say that they didn’t belong at the NHL level. It’s one thing to say that it’s not a development league, but you still have to understand that these players are barely 20 years old, and give them the tools to continue growing.

Hadi: The mindset should always be progress. Every league is a development league because all of your players should be constantly growing and developing in some area, not just your kids. I talked with [former Toronto Marlies assistant coach] Jack Han once, where I asked him “when does development stop?” He said “anyone can improve, it’s just a question of extent.” I think this mindset is something that Wright encompasses. In every one of his interviews, I can clearly see his mindset of “I constantly want to improve, I constantly want to grow my game.” I think that is going to translate to the NHL very well, because no matter what the mindset of the front office happens to be, Wright will continue to pursue self-improvement, and he’s going to find ways to beat age regression and adjust his game in small ways that translate well in the long run. I think that there’s a chance that Wright reaches that John Tavares point where his skating stops being good enough to keep up with plays on a regular basis, but I think Wright can work together with staff, watch video, and adjust his game to compensate for that.

Keep your eyes peeled for part three, coming soon, where the panel discusses if Jeff Gorton can be trusted with player development after his experiences with Lias Andersson and Vitali Kravtsov in New York.

Readers looking for the first part, covering whether the Habs should select Shane Wright first overall or not, can find it here.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. The full, unedited conversation that serves as the source for all four parts is available below.

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