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Top NHL scout warns this draft is going to be ‘unpredictable’

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BUFFALO — Shane Wright stared at the menu, but really he was staring at the prices.

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The top prospect heading into next month’s NHL Entry Draft was having dinner with the members of the Montreal Canadiens’ management team. And he wanted to order steak. But before he did, he politely asked what he hopes will be his future boss for permission.

After all, the steak wasn’t cheap.

“It was pretty expensive, like 60 bucks or something,” Wright said. “They said, ‘Go ahead, have it.’”

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Getting invited to dinner — and getting to order one of the more expensive items of the menu — was as good a sign as any that the Canadiens might be interested in using their No. 1 overall pick on Wright. Then again, he wasn’t the only top prospect they broke break with at this week’s NHL Scouting Combine.

Logan Cooley, who NHL Central Scouting listed as the No. 2-ranked North American skater, also had dinner with the Canadiens.

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“It went really well,” he said. “But it’s kind of hard to tell what everyone’s thinking right now.”

Juraj Slafkovsky, who is the top-ranked European skater, didn’t get an invite. Though if you ask him, it was because it wasn’t necessary.

“I think they were interested,” Slafkovsky said. “I didn’t have the dinner, but I think the talk we had tasted better than the dinner.”

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However you look at it, the Canadiens have a lot to chew on.

This year’s draft isn’t like normal years, where there is a generational player waiting to be picked No. 1. There isn’t a Connor McDavid or an Auston Matthews. There might not even be an Owen Power.

Instead, there are three — maybe more — players who could easily have their names picked first.

“This is going to be a very unpredictable draft year,” NHL Central Scouting’s Dan Marr said. “I think this is going to be one of the most unpredictable in a long time.

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“The first three teams that pick in the draft could get the No. 1 player in the draft. It’s that tight and that close. So it depends on the club’s drafting philosophy and what they’re looking for. All three of these players bring something different to the table.”

The Canadiens haven’t tipped their hat on who they are looking at selecting No. 1 — or even what they are looking for in terms of position. Complicating matters is that Wright, Cooley and Slafkovsky all bring different qualities to the table.

Wright and Cooley are both centres, but that is where the comparisons end.

Wright, who gained exceptional status to play for the Kingston Frontenacs in the Ontario Hockey League as a 16-year-old, is a two-way forward who models his game after Patrice Bergeron. Flashy, he is not.

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In fact, the Burlington, Ont., native’s lack of production this season (he finished fifth on the team with 32 goals and was second with 94 points in 63 games) has some worried the 6-foot, 191-pound Wright might not be a franchise star.

“I think anytime you see a guy at the top, there’s going to be people looking to drag you down, nitpick your game and pick out those little mistakes you make rather than focus on the positives,” Wright said of the recent criticism.

The 5-foot-10, 174-pound Cooley, who compares himself to Patrick Kane, spent the past two years with the US National Development Team, where the Pittsburgh native scored 27 goals and 75 points in 51 games.

“Two different types of players, two different types of skill-sets,” Marr said. “For our group, there was just a more completeness to Shane’s game. But at the end of the day, if you look four, five years down the road, they both could be 80-point players, they both could be all-stars, goal-scorers, go-to players on their team.

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“Cooley does have that NHL speed and quickness. Shane may have a slight edge to have that quickness to read and react to the play and make the play.”

And then there is Slafkovsky, who might be the dark horse of the three. He also might be the most NHL-ready prospect, having played the past two seasons against grown men in the Finnish league.

“I played men’s last season and more guys played junior,” said Slafkovsky, who took offence to the notion that Wright deserved to go No. 1. “That’s what he thinks. I think something else.”

If Slafkovsky sounded confident — if not cocky — it is because he is coming off a breakout year where the 6-foot-4, 218-pound winger led the Olympics with seven goals in seven games and then added another nine points in eight games at the World Championships.

“Slafkovsky, in his own right, is the most physically mature. And he’s a player who figures the game out,” Marr said. “You saw it at the Olympics and then the world championships. He quickly adapts to the game and quickly finds a way in which he can play his game and play it well to get things done out there.

“He’s better suited to manage the transition (to the NHL).”

Whether that transition is in Montreal — or New Jersey or Arizona, who have the next two picks, respectively — won’t be known until July 7.

But it sure sounds as though the Canadiens can’t go wrong with either player.

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