Playing the odds: Slafkovsky versus Wright for No. 1 in 2022
Shane Wright, for the majority of the 2021-22 season, was touted as the consensus No. 1 ranked prospect for the 2022 NHL Draft.
Sure, there were some hiccups along the way, but almost all within the scouting community continued to slot the Kingston Frontenacs standout at the head of the class. And rightfully so.
There were rumblings of a potential unseating as recently as a month ago, and the Montreal Canadiens, who nabbed the rights to the No. 1 pick after winning the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery, pleaded indecision when it came to what they were planning to do when hitting the stage on Thursday.
And when TSN’s Bob McKenzie released the results of his year-end scout survey, all bets were off. Figuratively, not literally.
It was winger Juraj Slafkovsky who unseated Wright, netting five of 10 first-place votes in McKenzie’s annual polling. Wright earned just four of those 10 votes, with the final tally going to Logan Cooley of the US National Team Development Program.
It has turned the betting end of the 2022 draft on its side.
“When the No. 1 pick market opened Wright was about a -5,000 favorite to go first, with Slafkovsky coming back at like +500,” Brandon DuBreuil, editor-in-chief of Covers.com, detailed to FCHockey. “Those numbers didn’t move much at all until McKenzie released his final rankings.”
Slafkovsky’s climb hasn’t been super shocking. He was a standout at both the 2022 Beijing Olympics and the 2022 IIHF Men’s World Championship, prompting a closer look, and subsequent push, into the game of the 18-year-old from Slovakia.
As such, he’s gained some momentum in recent weeks as Wright’s main competition for the first overall pick, and it has been reflected in many different avenues. The prospects and scouting community has begun to discuss the potential of a Wright versus Slafkovsky debate,
Another avenue has begun to take notice as well.
Sports gambling has taken Ontario by storm and has become a big ticket in North America, and the betting community has started to see the effects of highly respected people in the hockey community ranking Slafkovsky ahead of Wright.
The McKenzie rankings have had a big impact on the odds of each player going first overall in the draft. McKenzie polls scouts in the NHL to come up with his rankings and over the past number of years his ranking generally depicts what NHL teams think of the upcoming draft class.
“Sharp bettors reacted quickly to Slafkovsky being at the top of McKenzie’s rankings and the odds quickly moved to where they sit today — Wright around -250 and Slafkovsky +175ish,” DuBreuil said.
The shifts in the market really reflect how much bettors respect the opinion, and the reputation McKenzie has built with his rankings over the entirety of his career.
According to Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes, Montreal is still deciding between Wright, Slafkovsky, and Cooley. While Wright has seen his grip on the odds-on favourite dwindle, he still holds down the spot while Slafkovsky has seen his odds of being the top selection skyrocket.
With time before the draft, bettors will want to know the pros and cons of placing their money on each prospect, as well as understanding the pros and cons for Montreal.
Pros for Slafkovsky
Sharp bettors have to read the trends in the market and understand how to marry the idea of Slafkovsky will make a lot of sense now because of McKenzie’s list.
Getting plus odds on a player that McKenzie has pegged as the number one in the class seems like a sure bet. He’s plugged in and typically whoever he has atop his list is usually taken with the top pick in the draft.
Bettors area banking on the past and McKenzie’s reputation.
For the Canadiens, Slafkovsky would be a big swing on his upside. He’s been okay in Liiga action this year, but has been a standout at two major international men’s tournaments, even netting an MVP performance in helping Slovakia to bronze at the Olympics.
In his press conference on Monday, Hughes said he’s not looking for the best player right now — he’s looking for the player who will make the biggest contribution to the Canadiens down the road. Many believe this could be Slafkovsky, whose high-end upside as a scoring winger can’t be disputed.
Cons for Slafkovsky
He’s picked up a ton of steam as the potential No. 1 pick, but even as it stands today he’s still an underdog to Wright.
The plus odds are tempting, but bettors must beware of Slafkovsky being the ‘hot name’ and any potential smoke screens that team’s throw out this time of year to drum up interest in their assets.
There have been reports from people saying that Montreal has pondered the idea of flipping the first overall pick to the New Jersey Devils, with the Devils having the intention of scooping up Slafkovsky, too. It’s rumour season in the NHL, and even with the bump from McKenzie’s rankings, betting against Wright — who has been the favourite all season long — remains a tough sell.
For the Canadiens specifically, passing on a center — especially one who has been highly touted for years as the top player in the 2022 draft class — for a winger could have dire consequences if Slafkovsky doesn’t pan out.
There has been historical examples of wingers being taken high in the draft and becoming franchise cornerstones, but for every Alex Ovechkin there’s a Nail Yakupov to compare him to. In fact, since Ovechkin’s selection as a No. 1 in 2004, only four wingers have been taken with the first overall pick, including Patrick Kane, Taylor Hall, Yakupov, and Alexis Lafreniere.
The spread on Yakupov and Lafreniere is eight years. In that time, five centers and two defensemen have been taken.
It’ll be Hughes’ first ever pick as a GM, he could be tempted to stick with the safer choice of Wright.
Pros for Wright
Wright has been the odds-on favourite all year long and most people in the scouting community still have him pegged as the top prospect in the class.
He didn’t have the best season imaginable in Kingston, but he still performed well over a point-per-game and was one of the best draft eligible players in the Canadian Hockey League in terms of production. He still managed 94 points (32 goals, 62 assists) after an impressive performance in spring of 2021 in helping Canada to gold at the World Under-18 Championship — his only on-ice action last season.
Montreal is in desperate need of a top-six center, and now with the first pick they have the chance to take one. Sure, Wright didn’t necessarily meet the expectations lofted on him as an ‘exceptional’ talent into the Ontario Hockey League, but it’s important to note that outside of that World Under-18s appearance — where he was on another level — he missed a full season of development due to the COVID-19 shutdown.
Bettors can feel safe and secure knowing he’s the betting favorite and, while he doesn’t offer a high payout, his odds are low enough to feel confident that he will be the guy.
There is no sure-fire franchise player in this class and each prospect comes with some risks, but Wright’s pedigree and positional value should be enough for the Canadiens to bet on him.
Cons for Wright
From a betting perspective, there’s not a lot of money to be won if you place your money on Wright. His odds don’t provide much value right now and the growing hype behind Slafkovsky having a minimal impact on his odds might be enough to dissuade a sharp bettor from placing their money on Wright.
For Montreal, there aren’t that many cons in drafting Wright, unless they’re incredibly overestimating a Connor McDavid-type of impact from him. Wright won’t be the franchise altering center that many people might have wanted him to be, but he will still provide high-quality, two-way play and be a marketable asset that the Canadiens can build around.
The (W)right choice
There are a few days before the draft and there will be a flurry of rumours in the coming days about the Canadiens and other teams jockeying for draft position. As such, the betting markets will continue to shift and it will show a difference between newer bettors and more experienced ones.
“Most of the action that would have come in so far on this market would likely be from sharp bettors as opposed to recreational ones, where rec bettors tend to place their bets much closer to the time of the event,” DuBreuil said.
“It will be interesting to watch the market play out over the next few days and especially next Thursday.”