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MONTREAL — Bill Armstrong had an educated hunch about how the first two picks at the NHL Draft might play out. He didn’t think that the Montréal Canadiens were serious about trading the No. 1 pick and he was right. He didn’t think that the New Jersey Devils were serious about trading the No. 2 pick and he was right.
Armstrong suspected that Slovakian Juraj Slafkovský would be gone in the first two picks, but he hoped that a defenseman might go in those top two so that he could have a shot at center Logan Cooley, the first prospect that PHNX Sports featured in its series of prospect profiles.
Sometimes, the best laid plans produce results.
“You always have some worries when you get to the draft,” the Coyotes GM said. “This year was different. Nobody could really predict who was going to go (number) one so there’s a lot of different scenarios. We had really prepared for the best and the worst case scenario so we’re extremely excited for Mr. Cooley. He is exactly what we need and he’s got a chance to be a number one center in the National Hockey League.”
The latter possibility alone should pique the interest of Coyotes fans who have waited for a legitimate No. 1 center for two decades, but taken in the context of what the Coyotes have accomplished over the past four months, Arizona has built a center pipeline with some intriguing potential. The Coyotes got Jack McBain from Minnesota and Nathan Smith from Winnipeg late in the season. On Thursday, they added Cooley and big Winnipeg ice center Conor Geekie to a depth chart that already features Barrett Hayton.
“I’ve always felt that you build through the middle of the ice,” Armstrong said. “In St. Louis, we made some strides where we went out and got Robert Thomas and I think that was a huge impact and then all sudden we got (Ryan) O’Reilly and then we signed (Tyler) Bozak so my thought process is that if we can build through the middle ice with the Barrett Haytons of the world, the McBains of the world, the Cooleys and also the Geekies, that’s a good start for us. Centermen are hard to find.”
Cooley almost didn’t make it to the draft after his flight was canceled, but his family got a big van and made the long trek from Pittsburgh to Montréal with Cooley sleeping most of the way. The Coyotes’ interest was no surprise to him after conversations at the NHL Scouting Combine.
“They have such a bright future with (Clayton) Keller, future draft picks, draft picks they had in the past and they’re heading in the right direction,” Cooley said in a brief media session after his selection. “It still feels like a dream. It’s definitely pretty crazy, all the mixed emotions I have right now, but I’m super fired up to be a Coyote.”
Only time will tell which of these top picks pans out, but in Cooley, the Coyotes got a center whom draft analyst Chris Peters called the most dynamic player in the draft; an opinion that Cooley’s NTDP coach Adam Nightingale echoed.
“He certainly can break you down one on one, but when he’s playing his best, it’s his ability to make the players around him better and use them and give and go and dart to ice — to me, that’s the dynamic side,” Nightingale said. “He’s got a creative mind, too. He’s not just trying things because it’s a trick play. He actually processes things super fast. He’s able to chip it up over a stick or let a puck go through his skates to get through a teammate.”
It was a mild surprise to some draft analysts and fans that the Coyotes chose Cooley over Shane Wright, the long presumed top pick who dropped all the way to No. 4 and Seattle. When asked how he differentiated between the two, Armstrong noted their contrasting styles.
“Wright’s a really good player in the sense that he can shoot a puck,” Armstrong said, ‘where Cooley is more of a skater and pushing the pace and he plays a little bit faster. He’s more, for me, a puck mover. He makes people better around him.
“He’s a very determined kid. He is on the puck. I think that’s one of his greatest attributes is just how he’s got an engine.”
Cooley had 75 points combined between the U18 and juniors (USHL) teams this past season. He will more than likely spend next season at the University of Minnesota with Arizona product Matthew Knies after initially committing to Notre Dame, but it was at the NTDP where Cooley said his game truly blossomed.
“I think it’s just how hard they push you there,” he said. “You just focus on hockey every day. Practices are two hours, workouts are two hours long. When you’re on the ice, you’re battling against the best kids in the country. You can’t go anywhere else and do that. In the weight room, they push you hard. We work out every day for two hours and with all the resources you have there it’s like no other place around.”
Cooley’s size (5-10½) will be a knock on his potential until he proves otherwise, but the Pittsburgh native embraced his skill set long ago when finally gave up on the idea of emulating his childhood idol, Alex Ovechkin, and gave in to a style of play that vaulted him all the way to No. 3 pick at the 2022 NHL Draft.
“I don’t even know how it started, to be honest,” he said, laughing. “I just loved Ovechkin. I’d watch his highlights and stuff, just the way he celebrated when he scored goals. I just fell in love with watching him and he turned me into a Capitals fan. I always rooted for them against the Pens. It was kind of funny and I got a lot of hate for it.
“It’s kind of funny now because I think it’s fair to say that I’m the complete opposite of Ovechkin.”
Top photo via Getty Images: Coyotes draft pick Logan Cooley is flanked on stage at the 2022 NHL Draft by Coyotes director of amateur scouting Darryl Plandowski (left) and associate director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski (right).