MATHESON: Top prospects for 2024 NHL draft chat it up with McDavid and Oilers

“This is as big as it gets. Watching the best players in the world prepare for this type of game, I feel like it’s a learning experience, just kind of seeing how they approach it.”

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Every year in the Stanley Cup final, the NHL trots out the stars of tomorrow, Central Scouting’s top rated kids for the upcoming draft a few weeks down the road.

Ten years ago, those wide-eyed teenagers were Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Leon Draiasitl and Sam Bennett, who are taking part in this year’s Stanley Cup Final between Edmonton and Florida.

This is the first time that’s ever happened that the first four selections in a draft year are battling one another years later.

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This June’s travelling edition features Mack Celebrini, the Vancouver-born centre who went to Boston University, won the Hobey Baker award as the best NCAA player as a freshman (64 points in 38 games) and will likely be the first name called by San Jose GM and former Oiler winger Mike Grier. Fittingly, because Celebrini grew up in San Jose, playing for the Sharks’ U14AAA team because his dad Rick works for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors as their head of sports medicine and performance.

Also on the building for Game 2: Medicine Hat Tigers junior centre Cayden Lindstrom (46 points in an injury-plagued 32 games), Denver University defenceman Zeev Buium (50 points in 42 games), whose team won the NCAA championship this spring, and Belarusian-born Artyom Levshunov blueliner, who plays at Michigan State.

All four kids met the media after the Oilers morning skate — at one point Celebrini took over a vacant podium in an empty interview room to “see if they had any questions,” he joked– but predictably media chores were far down their list. They were all a whole lot more interested in having a few words with the greatest player in the world, Connor McDavid, or simply hanging out by the Edmonton dressing room.

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“I’ve never seen a blade that big,” said Buium, eying Draisaitl’s paddle.

“But he sure can do something with it.”

The kids came to the Amerant Arena Monday morning for Oiler practice, all dressed up, Celebrini wearing a suit and vest and nice dress shoes. Buium and Levshunov, in a buzz cut, in suits and ties, big Lindstrom more casual — suit, open-necked white shirt, white sneakers.

Celebrini, who turns 18 later this week, isn’t being hyped as a generational player like fellow centre Connor Bedard, who was picked by Chicago in June, 2023, but he’s plenty talented.

He will have his college rival (Boston College) Will Smith, Sharks’ first pick in 2023 for NHL company in San Jose, But it’s still going to be a tall order for Celebrini to be leading the Sharks out from their rebuild.

Whatever, that’s after draft day.

On Monday, it was about seeing the current stars for the future ones.

“It was really cool seeing him (at the rink). He was just asking about the trip, how it was going. It was awesome to talk to him, especially on a big game day. We all really appreciated it,” said Celebrini, who had seen McDavid before at the Biosteel camp in Halifax along with current NHLers.

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But this is the Cup Final. This could be Celebrini some day.

Maybe 10 years from now. The Sharks, in a major tear-down rebuild, are a long, long ways from even making the playoffs, never mind getting to the final stage.

“Hopefully in the future I’m playing in one,” said Celebrini, who was at Rogers Arena in Vancouver for Game 7 of the Oilers-Canucks second-round series, so he knows how feverish the playoffs are when you’re in the building, not watching on TV.

Does McDavid know he was rooting for the Canucks?

“No he didn’t. I don’t know if he saw that, luckily,” said Celebrini.

“I’ve watched most of the playoffs, obviously in person vs on TV is different but you can tell the pace of the game is up, the physicality. There’s no time and space. It’s impressive to see what these guys can do under these conditions,” he said.

Especially in the finals, and being in the rink, to see how fast it is.

“This is as big as it gets. Watching the best players in the world prepare for this type of game, I feel like it’s a learning experience, just kind of seeing how they approach it,” said Celebrini.

“You can obviously tell that they’re pretty laid back and they’ve done it before.”

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Well, actually they haven’t done it before.

This is McDavid’s first trip to the finals. Same with Draisaitl.

McDavid certainly remembers when he was at the 2015 finals, though.

“Yeah, it was really fun. It was in Chicago, the Chicago-Tampa Bay final. I can’t remember which game but it was really cool, just getting a chance to meet some of the guys like (Patrick) Kane and (Jonathan) Toews and all of those (Hawks’) guys,” said McDavid.

“We just chatted with them (Celebrini and crew) a little bit, they seem like great kids. They did say they had fun at the (recent) combine, which we were surprised at,” said McDavid, rolling his eyes a tad, well aware of the stern tests NHL teams put the high-end kids through to measure their physical readiness for the draft.

Fun? Are these kids nuts?

“I think he (McDavid) was just joking around,” said Celebrini.

“I meant that I made some good relationships with different guys I hadn’t met before at the draft.”

2014 NHL draft
Florida Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad, Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl and Panthers forward Sam Reinhart (drafted by the Buffalo Sabres) were the first three selection in the 2014 NHL draft are all taking part in the 2024 Stanley Cup Final between Edmonton and Florida. Photo by Bruce Bennett /Getty Images

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