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Mike Harrington: At the top and as the Sabres make their three choices, there's lot to watch as the NHL draft opens

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Canada NHL Draft Prospects Hockey

From left, Juraj Slafkovsky, Shane Wright and Logan Cooley pose at the NHL draft top hockey prospects media availability, Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Montreal. They are expected to be the top three picks but the order remains uncertain.

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Sports Columnist

A News staffer since 1987, I'm a Baseball Hall of Fame voter, a 2013 inductee into the Buffalo Baseball HOF and the Buffalo chapter chair of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. And I insist only Chicago & New York can come close to Buffalo pizza.

MONTREAL – Unless something really goofy happens, the Sabres won't be involved in the top of the first round of Thursday's NHL draft in Bell Centre. Doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention though. 

General manager Kevyn Adams is slated to pick at Nos. 9, 16 and 28. He's going to get good players. And he doesn't have to sweat out what's going on at the top, where Montreal has the No. 1 pick no one in hockey seems to know the identity of.

When we went to the Montreal Science Center to meet with some of the top prospects Wednesday morning, it was the unquestioned topic du jour.

"I don't know. Maybe you should ask them," Slovak winger Juraj Slavkovsky said with a wry smile when pressed about the Habs' choice. "And it doesn't really matter. At the end when I'm retired, I want to be the best player from the draft."

Of course, it matters in a big way to Shane Wright. The presumptive No. 1 pick for the last year from Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League has watched his status chipped away at for months, to the point that nobody knows what the Canadiens will do when they take the microphone Thursday night. You can find lots of people who say the choice will be Slavkovsky, whose stock soared because of his play in the Beijing Olympics, or maybe even Pittsburgh native Logan Cooley.

A new contract for winger Victor Olofsson is atop general manager Kevyn Adams’ priority list ahead of a draft in which the Sabres own picks 9, 16 and 28. Olofsson, 26, is a restricted free agent after completing his third NHL season – remarkably, only his first featuring a full 82-game schedule – and the negotiation can’t be simple for either side.

The Habs are the first home team to draft No. 1 overall since the Toronto Maple Leafs took Wendel Clark in 1985. Wright said he knew what jersey he wants to put over his head Thursday – and trust me when I say we all took that to mean it's not a sweater from New Jersey, Arizona or Seattle.

"It's human nature. It's hard not to picture yourself here," Wright said, speaking in front of picturesque window views that included Old Montreal, the St. Lawrence River and the Jacques Cartier Bridge. "Just walking around, beautiful city, unreal city. It kind of speaks for itself what's going on here. And then we'll just look out the window and see the water, the bridge and all that. It's tough not to picture yourself here."

Earlier in the morning, the prospects were at a youth clinic at the Canadiens' palatial practice facility in suburban Broussard, which features replicas of all the championship banners over the main rink.

The players were floored by the Habs' Bell Centre replica locker room and Montreal players such as Nick Suzuki were on hand working out. Slavkovsky even had some pictures taken with him.

Showing he's already willing to play with this city's media horde, a laughing Slavkovsky said, "I just stood next to him so the newspaper had something to write about."

What will be written about the Sabres remains cloaked in uncertainty as well. They're scheduled to make three first-round picks for the first time since they did that in consecutive drafts in 1982 and 1983. Adams has to hope he does as well as Scotty Bowman did in those years.

In '82, Bowman grabbed two Hall of Famers, sandwiching Phil Housley (No. 6 overall) and Dave Andreychuk (16) around hard-shooting winger Paul Cyr (9), who also played 343 games for the Blue and Gold. 

Bowman also was solid the next year when he took Massachusetts high school goalie Tom Barrasso at No. 5. Not so solid in grabbing Normand Lacombe and Adam Creighton at 10-11, with Lacombe's NHL career not amounting to much and Creighton having much more success in his four stops after Buffalo.

When he met with reporters late Wednesday afternoon in the fabled Queen Elizabeth Hotel – site of the famous spin of the wheel that landed Gilbert Perreault in 1970 – Adams indicated that the most likely scenario is still the Sabres making all three picks. He's not going for any short-term plays.

"What it also does when you have three first-round picks is you become popular," Adams said. "You have conversations and you're in conversations, and nothing's off the table."

Equipped with a trio of first-round draft picks, Buffalo Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams will soon bolster his already deep prospect pool. However, the Sabres won’t have first dibs when the draft is held July 7-8 in Montreal. They own picks 9, 16 and 28 in the first round, the latter two of which were acquired in the Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart trades, respectively.

Antennas went up there. Adams & Co. can't be overwhelmed by the point that Nos. 16 and 28 will go down in franchise history because of how they were acquired. No. 16 will always be the player whose pick came for Jack Eichel, and No. 28 came from Sam Reinhart. Adams said Wednesday he hadn't given those points much thought since the trades were made. Phooey to that. Fans follow those connections. The media sure does. Just ask Robin Lehner.

Another tentacle to this draft is how the issue of Russian players continues to be of growing concern in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. Philadelphia goalie prospect Ivan Fedotov was reportedly detained last week and sent to a military camp in the Arctic when officials learned he was planning to go to the United States.

Teams are concerned about the return of their Russian players, as well, with Minnesota having to deny reports Wednesday that star Kirill Kaprizov fled Russia because he is wanted for reportedly buying a falsified military ID card in 2017

The Sabres are one team many mock drafts have taking a chance on Russian players at 16 and 28, notably forwards Danila Yurov and Ivan Miroshnichenko. No way Adams should do it, especially in the current climate. He took four Russians last year and the Sabres need to take a step back for now. It would be a bad look, and you have no idea when you could get players like that out of Russia, anyway.

"You have to pay attention," Adams said, referring to world events. "That's the best way I would say it."

Who takes that chance is just another layer of intrigue for a first round full of it. Just imagine if we get some trades of Top 10 picks, too. If the Habs take Slavkovsky, New Jersey is likely willing to make a move with its No. 2 pick and could start a domino effect. 

For one night, Montreal is set to become Crazy Town. Bring it on.

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Sports Columnist

A News staffer since 1987, I'm a Baseball Hall of Fame voter, a 2013 inductee into the Buffalo Baseball HOF and the Buffalo chapter chair of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. And I insist only Chicago & New York can come close to Buffalo pizza.

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