Assessing the Red Wings’ center options in the 2022 NHL Draft
The Red Wings’ biggest organizational need is no secret.
Yes, as has been the case for several years now, the Red Wings still need the best overall player they can find when the 2022 NHL Draft rolls around. In Steve Yzerman’s first three drafts as general manager, that’s led Detroit to pick two defensemen and a winger. So far, all three look like strong picks.
But one of the hardest pieces to acquire in the NHL is a top young center, and one of the few perks of rebuilding is getting to draft in the range where those pivots tend to be available.
So, is this finally the year the Red Wings can draft another long-term, top-six center to pair with Dylan Larkin?
Now that the NHL has officially announced its draft lottery will be held on May 10, we broke down some of the potential candidates in this year’s draft, with scouting reports from prospect experts Corey Pronman and Scott Wheeler’s most recent draft rankings, plus insight into why they’d fit for the Red Wings.
Here they are, separated into two tiers — centers it would take a lottery win to have a chance at, and those with a shot to be available late in the top 10 — and ordered according to the average of Corey and Scott’s rankings.
The lottery dreams
Shane Wright, Kingston (OHL), 6’0″, 191 lbs.
Pronman’s report (1st): “He can skate and handle the puck like an NHLer. Wright’s game translates because of his compete level and direct style of play. He takes pucks to the net and plays with pace. He can pull up to make a tough pass but can take pucks to the interior too. His shot is very good, showing the ability to pick corners from long-range consistently. Off the puck, he’s competitive and responsible, showing maturity beyond his years. He projects as a No. 1 center in the NHL due to his all-around play but probably won’t be an elite scorer in the league.”
Wheeler’s report (1st): “Wright is a very athletic kid who boasts a wide gait and boxy shoulders that allow him to stay over pucks and play through checks. Those physical tools are complemented by a lethal wrist shot release (which he can get off from several stances and pops off of his blade’s heel or toe) and quick hands in traffic that allow him to take pucks off of the wall from won battles and create scoring chances to the interior. He’s also one of the most diligent three-zone players in the draft.”
Bultman’s take: Wright’s been the presumptive No. 1 pick (for years) for a reason, and getting him would be a home run for the Red Wings. The detail in his game and his mental makeup are both impressive for an 18-year-old, which could help him make a smooth transition to the NHL. And while his OHL point totals never quite rose to the ridiculous levels we’ve come to expect from first overall picks, they’re still very strong, and his track record of scoring should give whichever team drafts Wright plenty of confidence they’re getting the complete package. For Detroit, landing Wright could even allow them to start getting aggressive sooner than expected, finally having confidence in their future down the middle.
Logan Cooley, U.S. NTDP, 5’10”, 174 lbs.
Pronman’s report (3rd): “Cooley is a dynamic player. When he has the puck on his stick you instantly notice him because of his high-end speed, skill and offensive IQ. He can make highly creative dekes and passes at full speed. The pace of his game is why I think he will be a top NHL player. He takes pucks up the ice and to the net often. Cooley lacks size, but he plays hard. He can drive play at even strength while also having the vision and shot to be a power-play threat running a unit from the walls. He projects as a first-line forward; if it’s as a center it would be a low-end first-line center in the NHL.”
Wheeler’s report (4th): “Cooley is a beautiful, flowing skater capable of beating defenders off the mark or circling the zone to get defenders watching him with the puck. He’s got an uncanny ability to side-step and hop around oncoming players at speed. He’s got a great sixth sense for timing and spacing around the zone which frees him to accept passes or jumps him onto rebounds. Despite a smallish frame, he regularly flashes skill to the inside, slicing to the middle and pulling pucks through or around defenders. He’s also a Swiss Army knife player who combines NHL speed and skill with a working attitude to push pace, make plays, win races, stay involved, and get onto the ice in all situations.”
Bultman’s take: To me, Cooley is the slam-dunk choice for the Red Wings if they move up to the second spot in the draft. Corey said it best: he’s dynamic. I like his hands, feet, brain and motor, and he does everything at high speed. He’s on the lighter side physically, so he’s not likely to be a plug-and-play NHLer this October (he’s committed to Minnesota), but his attributes are so good that I think he’ll still get there quickly enough and make a real impact. For all those reasons, moving up to the No. 2 spot in the lottery would be just about as big a deal for Detroit’s rebuild as moving up to No. 1 would.
Logan Cooley is so damn good. Great wheels to control the entry, crisp cross-ice pass to Casey, retrieves the bobbled puck, dangles through two defenders, and makes a slick backhand feed to McGroarty who completes the play with a beautiful move of his own.#2022NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/H1xKjjwc8V
— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) October 11, 2021
Of course, the Red Wings aren’t likely to get that lucky. If they stay put in the No. 9 position entering the lottery, their odds of moving up to nab one of those top-flight centermen will be about 10 percent. That’s not nothing, but it’s certainly not high enough to get your hopes up.
And, fair warning: if Detroit does end up picking late in the top 10, the chances of them finding a top-line caliber center there will be slim, too. It certainly happens — Dylan Larkin was picked 15th, Nick Suzuki, Robert Thomas and Josh Norris all went between picks 13 and 20 in 2017, and more examples abound — but it requires a player outperforming their pre-draft projection. You just can’t expect it.
It’s still a top-10 pick, though, which means Detroit would still have a chance at some good players. WHL forward Matthew Savoie (who has played center but is currently playing wing in junior and may stay there in the NHL) could plausibly slip to them. Or the Red Wings could make yet another first-round pick out of Europe, choosing between wingers Joakim Kemell, Danila Yurov or Jonathan Lekkerimäki. Heck, they may even walk away from the first round with another defense prospect, as they have in two of Yzerman’s first three drafts.
But at some point, the Red Wings are going to have to take a swing on a centerman early in the draft. And if they plan to begin turning the corner in this rebuild soon, they’d be wise to take that swing while they’re still picking in the top 10.
To that end, there are a few pivots who jump out as candidates in the range Detroit will most likely pick. This is not an exhaustive list, and there’s still time for more players to get into this group — including at the World U18 Championships, starting this weekend. One such player could be NTDP forward Cutter Gauthier, who is listed as a left wing (and is slated to play there for the tournament), but has also seen some time at center this season and could merit consideration if Detroit likes him down the middle.
But for now, these three centers stand out to me as names to watch for the Red Wings.
The top 10 candidates
Conor Geekie, Winnipeg (WHL) 6’3″, 196 lbs.
Pronman’s report (7th): “With his hands and reach he’s able to consistently maneuver pucks through sticks and legs to create chances. He’s a competitive big man who doesn’t shy away from physical contact, and combined with his skill makes him tough to deal with down low and strip the puck from in general. Geekie can make plays and run a power play, showing good vision and finish from the perimeter. His main flaw, like his brother Morgan’s was, is his skating. He’s a better skater than his brother and can separate occasionally at the WHL level but doesn’t project to do so in the NHL. Geekie projects as a quality top two line center.”
Wheeler’s report (13th): “Geekie’s a rare big pivot who also has the kind of skill that can find its way onto the highlight reel. So it’s no surprise he has generated top-10 buzz in this age group, or that he was the No. 2 pick into the WHL. But while his production last year really stood out and has remained good on a stacked Ice team this season, I’ve been let down more than once when I’ve watched him play (live and on video). He’s got impressive hands and body control for his size, which helps him control pucks inside the offensive zone and make plays while also getting the upper hand in board battles.”
Bultman’s take: Geekie’s skill — and his willingness to use it — is obvious, which makes for an appealing profile at his size. He’s produced at a similar level to what Kirby Dach did in his draft year, which was enough to get the Blackhawks center drafted third overall. Geekie’s skating is the question, and the main reason he even has a chance to be available where Detroit will likely pick, but if the Red Wings are willing to overlook that — or feel he’ll grow into it — then his offensive profile at that size would give him a real chance to be their long-term 2C. Big centermen with offense tend to be coveted prospects, so he may well be gone before Detroit has a chance at him.
Frank Nazar, U.S. NTDP, 5’10”, 175 lbs.
Pronman’s report (15th): “Nazar brings a lot of speed and energy to his shifts. He lacks ideal NHL size, but he makes up for it with his effort. He is hard on pucks, and shows no fear in how he attacks the interior third of the offensive zone. He can make an occasional flashy deke or pass, but most his offense comes from the high percentage areas. Nazar’s great speed helps him get to the net and turn around a lot of defenders. He projects as a third-line center with a chance to be a No. 2 center.”
Wheeler’s report (10th): “He’s got quick hands, which help him deftly adjust in traffic to get shots off under pressure. He flashes creativity throughout his games. He plays pucks into space as well as anyone in the draft, regularly executing through tight gaps in coverage. And he’s just a hungry, driven player who consistently targets the middle lane with his greatest asset: his skating.”
Bultman’s take: A Mount Clemens, Michigan, native, Nazar’s skating can be a weapon. He hasn’t been as electrifying as Cooley in my viewings but he’s still been one of the top scorers at the NTDP this season, and I have seen him make some nice plays, often set up by his feet. To stick at center at his size he’ll need to be able to win battles against men, which is why it’s notable and encouraging Corey has his compete level rated as “high-end”. I’d expect him to be available at Detroit’s pick, and he figures to be a legit candidate for the Red Wings with multiple appealing traits.
Marco Kasper, Rögle (SHL), 6’1″, 183 lbs.
Pronman’s report (12th): “Kasper was easy to spot even in SHL games because of how powerful an athlete he is. He would often be the guy to wind it up in his own end to carry the puck due to his great speed and skill. Kasper has a strong 6-foot-1 frame, isn’t afraid to attack the hard areas, and can win some battles versus men as a 17-year-old. Kasper attacks with speed and skill, and while he can pull up to make a play or use his hard shot, his direct style of play will translate to the NHL. He projects as a top-nine center with the chance to play higher in a lineup.”
Wheeler’s report (27th): “He’s an advanced 200-foot centre who has fit in playing a regular shift in the SHL and has played well during Rogle’s Champions Hockey League segments. I don’t see game-breaking skill or finishing, per se, but he’s a strong skater who plays with pro pace, plays on the interior, and makes plays all over the ice.”
Bultman’s take: Kasper’s motor instantly jumps out watching him against men. His skating makes him a strong puck transporter and entry creator, and he’s fearless down low in puck battles and around the net. That’s an appealing place to start. He’s also been consistently noticeable in the SHL playoffs, where he has five points in 10 games — quite good for a U18 player in that league — albeit on the wing for perhaps Sweden’s best team. How his offensive game evolves will determine Kasper’s ultimate ceiling, but there are several projectable elements to his game already. To me, he belongs in Detroit’s mix late in the top-10.
(Top photo of Shane Wright: Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press via AP)