Chris Rock may have suffered a slap in the face at the Oscars but he’s not alone. Shane Wright is having to deal with a Slaf in his face as the battle heats up for first overall in the NHL Draft.
It’s quickly turning into the Year of the Euro. It’s quite conceivable that, for the first time in NHL history, seven or eight of the top ten picks will be from Europe.
Juraj Slafkovsky has played at a whole new level since joining his national team in February. His performance at the Olympics was unprecedented for a 17-year-old. The tournament MVP carried Slovakia to a bronze medal while leading the tournament goal scoring.
“You had to be impressed by his performance at the Olympics,” said one scout in early March. “I was wondering where the offence was this season and then boom…he does that on the biggest stage. He staked his claim to one of the top two spots in the draft at this point. I still want to see him do it in his league, though.”
Fast forward three weeks and the hulking 6-3 winger has done just that. Slafkovsky has notched five goals in his last seven games after scoring just once in his first 25 FHL games. He is on a seven-game point streak where all eight points were either goals or primary assists. That is an impressive streak for any player in Finland’s top league, never mind a kid who turned 18 yesterday..
“He doesn’t even know how strong he is,” said one scout who saw him two weeks ago. “He’s big but he’s not mature strong. Wait until he gets stronger.”
The expectation is that Shane Wright will play in the NHL next season. It’s not as certain that Slafkovsky will make the jump even though he’s more physically ready than any other prospect.
“He could go back for another year in Finland and it wouldn’t hinder his development,” said the scout. “Whoever picks Wright is playing him in the NHL. You don’t want him going back to junior for a fourth year…what’s the point in that? Nothing to learn. He needs to get to another level and he’ll have to do that in the NHL.”
Wright has bounced between one and two in Recrutes’ rankings since last fall due to his inconsistencies in both production and effort. Wright sits tenth overall in OHL scoring, which, for most prospects, would be impressive. When you are drafting first overall and the player in question is third overall on his own junior team behind two undrafted players, it becomes more of a concern.
Wright was tabbed as a franchise player when he achieved exceptional status and lit up the OHL as an underaged rookie. Going into this season, after putting up big numbers in a first-line center role on the U18 world champions, many expected a McDavid or Crosby type of draft year. So far, it hasn’t even been an Alexis Lafreniere-type year.
Wright had a terrific start to the Top Prospects Game, being sprung on a breakaway on his first shift and then scoring the game’s first goal on his second shift. Wright got belted by Gatineau’s mammoth defenceman Noah Warren soon after, and Wright’s intensity waned considerably.
“He came out of the chute in the Top Prospects game like I hadn’t seen yet, then he folded up like a cheap tent,” said one scout who attended the game. “After that Warren hit he was pretty quiet. He didn’t even want that puck in traffic. Kind of like in his leagues.
“He kept shooting instead of driving to the net. It is concerning. I know when he plays Hamilton it’s the same damn thing. Very careful I don’t think he wants to be in puck battles. I do think it’s about determination/willingness sometimes.”
Another sign that a prospect isn’t living up to expectations is when his most ardent defenders trot out the excuses, and there have been plenty.
- “He went overboard on his nutrition and lost too much weight, so he’s weak”.
- “He didn’t play last year (neither did 80 percent of his fellow OHLers), so he’s still trying to catch up.”
- “He hasn’t had good linemates (Kingston is one of the highest-scoring teams in the OHL).”
All of those excuses have been made, and at some point, you have to acknowledge that Wright isn’t as good as many thought he would be. It doesn’t mean that he still won’t be a very productive NHLer, but the franchise player tag he got as a 15 and 16-year-old may have been overzealous.
“If that is true…that he went overboard on nutrition and he lacks energy some games, then we’ll see in the playoffs if he can bring it around,” said one scout. “One thing about nutrition is that you can bring it around pretty quickly. He needs to step it up in the playoffs, and play hard on the road. If he doesn’t…what is he? What will he do come playoff time in the NHL?”
We know for sure that Wright suffered a facial injury when struck by a puck – he wore a cage for a couple of months afterward. What has not been confirmed is the exact injury. It was thought that he had broken his nose but players don’t wear cages for two months after that.
“I heard that Wright’s maxilla bone was fractured, which is why he wore a cage longer,” said one scout. “I just wonder if that was the issue and he’s still a little leery about getting into battles. But the screen is off now.”
And so are the gloves. Wright needs to fight down the stretch and during the playoffs to earn the first overall ranking. There is legitimate contention for the top spot with Slafkovsky, who is expected to play for Slovakia at the World Championships. If the Slovak has another great tournament in front of the hockey world while Wright struggles in the OHL playoffs, it’s a pretty good bet that Slafkovsky ends up number one on most draft lists.
Four of the top five players in Recrutes’ rankings are European wingers, and that only adds to the uniqueness of this draft class. All four are still in the running to go first overall. For any of them to go ahead of the centerman Wright, however, they will have to be clearly better. The Lafreniere draft, where two wingers went one/two in the draft, is a rarity.
“You have to be absolutely sure that the winger is better,” said a scout. “Everyone wants that center if you’re picking high but right now there are no great centers.”
Two NHL crossover scouts who consult regularly with Recrutes were in Europe recently and both were highly impressed with 6-0 left winger Liam Ohgren. He has been on a tear lately, netting 16 goals in an 11-game span on a high-flying Djurgardens junior team.
“The combination of everything makes him a top-five prospect,” said one scout. “Size, edge, he skates well and he has skill. I think there’s a nice combination of a lot of things there. I don’t know what he doesn’t have. I wouldn’t call him particularly fancy/creative but who cares? He’s very effective in a straight line. He’s a machine in the gym.”
Independent scouting services don’t appear to have caught on yet, ranking Ohgren anywhere from 16th to 39th overall. Expect that to change, just as it did for Miro Heiskanen, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Jake Sanderson and Mason McTavish once spring rolled around in their respective draft years.
Ohgren has scored 33 goals in 30 junior games this season. The last Swede to score more than a goal-per-game in Swedish junior was in 1999-20, and he was 20. No draft-eligible Swede had ever scored more than a goal-per-game in the U20 league before this season.
“That’s a pretty amazing stat,” said one scout when told of Ohgren’s accomplishment. “I do like him but I need to see him more. He was a little inconsistent but he can really shoot and he sees the ice well. He made plays, a good two-way winger in the game I was at. He probably could have had a hat trick. It was more or less about being more consistent with his effort…when he’s going he’s very good. He’s strong, has good hands and he can skate. He projects to be a top-two line guy so he’s at the top of this draft.”
Jonathan Lekkerimaki has also leapfrogged Joakim Kemell in the latest rankings. He adjusted rather seamlessly to the SHL this season, playing a regular role right up until he was recently sidelined with mono.
“Before he got hurt he was really good…he was awesome,” said one scout who saw him in early March. “He’s a goal scorer. He has a great release and goal scorer instincts. He has a heavy shot for his size. His scoring rate is pretty unbelievable. I think he’s setting records.”
Indeed, he is. Lekkerimaki’s goals per game average of .269 (seven goals in 26 SHL games) is higher than that of every other Swede taken with top-ten picks in the NHL Draft since Daniel Sedin in 1999. It should be noted that Sedin was ten months older than Lekkerimaki.
Lucas Raymond had six goals in 34 games in his draft year, and he was four months older than Lekkimaki. Elias Lindholm scored 11 goals in 48 games in his draft year and he was seven months older. Alex Holtz was six months older and scored nine goals in 36 SHL games in his draft year. All three went top seven in the draft.
The bottom line is this – Lekkerimaki is the second most prolific 17-year-old goal scorer in SHL history behind Peter Forsberg, who scored the same number of goals in three fewer games.
Lekkerimaki’s success versus men well before the age of 18 (he will be 17 until July 24) suggests that any concerns there may be about him being 5-10 are unfounded.
“How is Johnny Gaudreau doing this year?” asked one scout. “Yes…you have to be dynamic to succeed at his size, and he is exactly that. He won’t be the playmaker that Gaudreau is but few are in that category. He’ll likely score more goals, though.”
Expect Lekkerimaki to rise on independent lists as well. NHL scouts look at him as a top-ten lock at this point.
Kemell was first overall in Recrutes’ rankings in December after his unprecedented start to the season where he led all FHL players in scoring over the first two months of the season. He injured his shoulder, and since returning has not been the same player.
“He has f**ked me up more than any guy has ever f**ked me up,” said one matter-of-fact scout who early on thought Kemell might be the top prospect in the draft. “He doesn’t look like the same guy right now I saw earlier in the year. Right now he looks small…he doesn’t have the jump he had earlier, plays on the outside, doesn’t want to take a hit any more, doesn’t give a hit.”
The scout only saw him in two games recently so he may have been a tad overemotional in his critique. Kemell has shown signs in recent games of getting back to where he was earlier in the season. The fact remains that he is scoring at a pace that few Finnish prospects have achieved in their draft years. It’s tough enough playing in the FHL at 17, let alone scoring 15 goals. Even Patrik Laine didn’t score at the same pace as Kemmel.
“He will score goals in the NHL, that’s for sure.” said one scout. “He has a fantastic one-timer from the left side in the mould of a Cole Caufield. I am starting to wonder if he’s a bit selfish, though. His first instinct is always to shoot. That’s way better than never wanting to shoot but at the NHL level…teams learn to take away the shot if that is your tendency. He’ll have to adjust his mentality in that regard so that the passing option is also there.”
Ivan Miroshnichenko and Danila Yurov have been moved out of the top ten due in large part to the uncertainty surrounding Russia right now, and Miroshnichenko’s cancer diagnosis. Both can’t be properly scouted, and the possibility exists that Russia stops sending players over for the time being.
Here is Recrutes‘ top 96 as of March 31: