The battle for No. 1: How Wright, Slafkovsky, and Cooley match up
The 2022 NHL Draft is shaping up to be one of the most exciting and unpredictable in recent memory, with divergent opinions about the top prospect creating excitement and uncertainty over who the Montreal Canadiens will select first overall and who will emerge as the class’s biggest star in five or 10 years.
Shane Wright, the current presumptive No. 1 pick, has been on the national radar as a top-flight prospect since he was in middle school, with his Ontario roots and rare ‘exceptional’ status granted to him by Hockey Canada for early entry into the Ontario Hockey League — making him one of the most hyped young players this decade.
However, a cancelled season caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and an up-and-down pre-draft season has allowed two main contenders to creep into the conversation surrounding the top player in the 2022 NHL Draft.
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Enter Juraj Slafkovsky and Logan Cooley.
Slafkovsky first burst onto the international scene for an upstart Team Slovakia at the 2021 World Junior Championship. He didn’t log a point, but was able to keep pace and make plays at a high level for a player nearly three years younger than his average opponent. The Kosice product, who has developed in the Finnish junior ranks for the past few seasons, has a hulking 6-foot-4 frame and has elevated his game in a big way at multiple international events this season. His power and size, combined with soft hands and some ability to raise his level of play in high-leverage games, have made him the top contender to Wright’s throne.
The US National Development Team Program has produced both star prospects and NHL players in droves over the last few years, and this year’s iteration looks to be more of the same with multiple players possessing strong chances to go in the first round. The cream of this year’s crop appears to be Cooley, a University of Minnesota commit with speed and skill to burn.
The National Team Development Program leader in points-per-game this season, Cooley has the skating ability and the elite awareness at both ends necessary to remain down the middle despite being undersized for the position. However, his 5-foot-10 frame and his lack of dominance at the recent Under-18 World Championship likely have him behind Wright and Slafkovsky in the running for first overall pick.
But we’ll let the scouts decide.
And let’s get to know each.
Wright is an elite two-way center whose game is built off of his strong skating ability. He sits in a low, powerful stance and gets great extension and power from each stride due to near-ideal ankle bend and an extremely powerful lower half. Wright shows a knack for playing through contact and using a low center of gravity to attack tight spaces or find open space through a check. His edgework is strong but could use some work, as he shows a tendency to use quick cutbacks and pivots while under pressure but doesn’t create much separation when using his agility.
Wright is a confident and frequent puck-carrier in transition at the OHL level, but his foot-speed could be improved and he might not have the open ice speed to be a true separating threat at the NHL level.
Slafkovsky’s huge frame, meanwhile, will have most suggesting that he’ll never be a burner like Wright or Cooley, but he’s worked diligently to improve his skating and his elite athleticism is evident in his smooth skating stride and high work rate.
His foot-speed limits his acceleration and ability to create separation in his first few strides, but his stride power allows him to get to a great top speed and makes him a threat to carry the puck off the rush by using his long reach and downhill momentum to weave through the neutral zone. He’s nearly impossible to knock off the puck and his strength on his edges makes him a terror to handle on the offensive cycle. He uses his frame and balance to attack the middle lane and he has the offensive toolkit to take advantage of high-danger areas even while under heavy pressure.
Cooley despite being the smallest of this trio, could be the best all-around skater of the bunch.
He is a dynamic speedster with a low, balanced stance and elite footwork that allows him to separate in open ice and make quick moves at high speed. Cooley shows impressive edgework when carrying the puck, allowing him to dangle through checks and avoid opponents to create clean zone entries and open ice in the offensive end. He is a bulldog off the puck as well, using his speed to make an impact on the backcheck and showing good aggressiveness pursuing opponents on the forecheck. While common concerns over Cooley’s size have to do with his ability to stay at center as he progresses levels, he does everything at a breakneck pace and has the clear skillset needed to consistently drive a line in the NHL.
He’s the leader of the bunch when it comes to making his way around the ice.
Cooley is also the best of the bunch when it comes to puck skills.
He plays at an insanely high pace and he has the requisite stickhandling ability and carrying vision to take advantage of the defensive breakdowns and open lanes that his speed creates. He has arguably the most impressive pair of hands in the entire draft class, regularly using difficult dekes to beat his checks and showing an innate understanding of how to position the puck under pressure to maintain control despite his smaller wingspan.
His aggressiveness attacking the middle and putting defenders on their heels belies his small stature, and he’s fearless hunting down pucks in high-traffic areas or fighting through physicality to make a play.
Cooley’s prowess transitioning the puck makes him a one-man zone exit and entry, but he can be guilty at times of not utilizing his teammates enough on the rush and handling the puck into traffic as frequently as Cooley does can cause headaches for a center at the NHL level.
Wright, meanwhile, is constantly around the puck and is very effective at controlling play at both ends of the rink with his stick skills and positioning.
He has strong puck-handling skills, showing the confidence and ability to maneuver through traffic and make quick dekes to find an open lane for an entry or pass out of pressure. While he shows poise against checkers and can use his small-area skill to win battles along the wall, Wright isn’t as effective beating defenders one-on-one in open ice, and can be passive towards the outside of the zone after gaining the offensive blue line.
However, he has the vision and quick decision-making to potentially play at the NHL level as soon as next season.
Don’t sleep on Slafkovsky in this category, either.
He has long opened eyes with his unique and sought-after combination of small-area skill and athletic prowess in his skating and coordination.
While Slafkovsky has the tools to eventually become a solid NHL-level skater, he is arguably pro-ready when it comes to his confidence with the puck and ability to use his reach to beat defenders in open ice. He has soft hands for a huge winger and routinely makes opponents miss in open ice — making him effective in transition even with checkers draped on his back. His strength and edgework along the boards makes him tough to handle even against older, more experienced players and he generates plenty of good looks and puck touches in dangerous areas by using his frame to gain position on opponents.
So what happens when each player works himself into a shooting situation? Wright shines.
His standout tool is undoubtedly his wrist shot, which has the accuracy to score from all over the offensive zone and makes him a true scoring threat on the power play. He has a quick release and shows some deception in changing his shooting angle to get the puck through screens and defenders.
Wright is a volume shooter when he’s at his best, using his release off the rush and showing the awareness to find soft spots in the offensive zone to get a quick shot off. However, he could do a better job moving the puck into high-danger areas before shooting, perhaps partially explaining a notable drop in his shooting percentage, 19.7 percent down to 12.3 percent, from his rookie season.
Slafkovsky is no slouch, either.
He has a quick, heavy release as well, getting great power on his shot from a variety of setups and angles. He isn’t much of a high-volume shooter, instead using his frame and vision to get into dangerous areas and give himself higher-percentage looks.
His size gives him great leverage on one-timers and quick snap shots, making him a dangerous player off the puck and a special teams weapon from his off-wing. Slafkovsky is aggressive and displays good anticipation around the net, using his size to disrupt the goalie’s vision and showing a knack for tipping pucks and pouncing on rebounds quickly.
Cooley approaches things a different way.
He, on the other hand, is more of an opportunistic scorer, using his speed and smarts to create space inside the offensive end and then firing at a screened goalie or moving his feet to create a high-danger cross seam pass. While Cooley has a fast and accurate release on his shot, he usually relies more on smart positioning and setting up high-percentage plays with his vision over shooting through traffic or trying to score from outside the home plate area.
He isn’t much of a threat for a one-timer or to score from distance, but he excels at finding shooting lanes and has the accuracy to present a shooting threat from the side wall on the power play.
Slafkovksy’s size doesn’t just benefit the big winger with his shot.
The defining element of his game is his physical dominance, with the 6-foot-4, 218-pound teenager showing aggressiveness throwing his weight around to separate opponents from the puck. He has a huge wingspan and the coordination to hold off opponents with one arm while still surveying his options for a shot or pass.
Slafkovsky is able to bully some opponents, even at the Liiga level, and push his way to optimal areas of the ice without much resistance. He isn’t elite at tracking opponents in transition but can absolutely tilt the ice with his physical play once he’s engaged and involved in puck battles.
Wright has packed on muscle since entering the OHL and has a frame ready to withstand the rigors of professional hockey.
He doesn’t shy away from traffic on offense, using his strength to fight through checks and attack the middle lane and showing strong puck protection against bigger players along the wall. He doesn’t initiate contact often outside of his own end, but he displays poise under physical pressure and will duck his shoulder and use his reach to force his way into the slot area.
Wright plays more positionally sound and conservative in the defensive end, but he will initiate contact to disrupt the cycle and force opponents out of dangerous areas.
Cooley’s the most limited amongst the three when it comes to size and strength.
He’d also be among limited company were he to become a full-time center at his size in the NHL, but he absolutely has the mentality and relentless puck pursuit to fulfill the off-puck demands of the position. His low center of gravity allows him to fight off checks and stand his ground in board battles.
Cooley’s powerful lower half and constant movement also allows him to angle opponents off the puck and create loose pucks in the neutral zone, which drives his elite transition game. He’ll never be the type of player to throw big hits in open ice, but Cooley invites contact when he has the puck to open up passing lanes to find his teammates.
So what’ll Montreal do when it’s time to take center stage at Bell Centre?
We’ll find out soon whether Wright can fend off the late charge after a season of disappointment, relatively speaking, as a combination of rotating linemates and a new coach and system led to inconsistent production and stretches where Wright failed to stand out or take over games with his skill.
Cooley certainly passes the eye test with flying colours, but concerns over what his future role in the NHL will be and a failure to stake his claim to the first overall pick in falling short of a gold medal at the U18 Worlds likely cost him a chance at overtaking Wright in the race for first overall.
Slafkovsky was an international darling at the Olympics, where he was named tournament MVP after leading Slovakia to a bronze medal. However, he hardly made a statement with his play in Liiga, failing to produce in line with other draft-eligible top prospects out of the league in the past decade and ultimately landing him behind both Wright and Cooley in FCHockey’s Final ranking.
It is the closest competition for the No. 1 pick we’ve seen in some time, and none would be a shock to see go first.
And it would not be the least bit surprising to see any of these three prospects end up as the best player of the bunch five years down the line.