top prospects at the Stanley Cup Final main

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Connor McDavid walked into the hallway after the morning skate at Amerant Bank Arena on Monday, and the teenagers’ eyes opened wide.

The Edmonton Oilers trailed the Florida Panthers 1-0 in the Stanley Cup Final. McDavid was about to play Game 2 in a few hours (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, SN, TVAS, CBC).

Still, the superstar center took a few minutes to greet four of the top prospects for the 2024 Upper Deck NHL Draft: Macklin Celebrini, Artyom Levshunov, Cayden Lindstrom and Zeev Buium.

Maybe one day they will pay it forward, like McDavid did.

“Hopefully, in the future, I’m playing in the Stanley Cup Final,” Celebrini said. “So, I really hope so.”

top prospects with McDavid and Kane

The NHL has been bringing top prospects to the Cup Final since 1993. It gives them a chance to do media interviews ahead of the draft and to get to know each other. Most important, it gives them a chance to see the end goal up close.

Ten players in the Cup Final once did this themselves: McDavid, Evan Bouchard, Leon Draisaitl, Sam Gagner, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Darnell Nurse of the Oilers, and Sam Bennett, Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart and Matthew Tkachuk of the Panthers.

Ekblad, Reinhart, Draisaitl and Bennett did it together in 2014, before the Panthers, Buffalo Sabres, Oilers and Calgary Flames selected them with the first four picks in the draft, respectively.

“We were all just kids, just feeling the experience back then,” Bennett said. “Ten years later, we’re in the Stanley Cup Final. It’s pretty cool. It’s pretty cool how things work out sometimes.”

top prospects SCF

How will things work out for these four?

Celebrini (Boston University), Levshunov (Michigan State), Lindstrom (Medicine Hat) and Buium (University of Denver) are the top four North American skaters, respectively, in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings. Celebrini turns 18 on Thursday. The others are 18 already.

The draft is at Sphere in Las Vegas. The first round is June 28 (7 p.m. ET; ESPN, ESPN+, SN, TVAS). Rounds 2-7 are June 29 (11:30 a.m. ET; ESPN+, NHLN, SN, SN1).

“I think for all of us -- all the guys here, every prospect, every kid that wants to play in the NHL -- you want to win the Stanley Cup,” Buium said. “It’s why you want to make the NHL. It’s why you want to play in it. That’s the goal for me, and yeah, to see how they prepare and to see how kind of all of this goes down, it’s really cool. I feel fortunate to kind of be here and experience this.”

Led by David Keon, NHL senior manager of event communications and player development, the prospects dressed in suits and rode in a private car from the hotel to the arena. They ate breakfast at a folding table in the media area, joking and laughing as a camera crew and pack of reporters began following their every move.

top prospects in Oilers locker room

They entered the press conference room. Celebrini sat on the podium while the others sat in chairs like reporters.

Celebrini, a Canadian, and Buium, an American, once played together at Shattuck St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minnesota. Buium has bragging rights because of three titles -- the 2023 U18 World Championship, the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship and the 2024 NCAA championship.

“How does it feel to never win anything?” Buium chirped.

“Next question,” Celebrini said.

As the prospects walked to the ice, they passed Oilers general manager Ken Holland.

“Enjoying it?” Holland asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Celebrini said.

top prospects iin press room

They climbed to Row 18 of Section 133 to watch the Oilers skate. Celebrini stood and leaned against a glass railing as the others sat in seats. They were quiet, rapt.

“It’s everything you dream of as a kid,” Lindstrom said. “You’re out there. Your heart’s beating a little faster than usual. Just kind of taking it all in. … How crisp and clean it all is. There’s not very many errors. It was just fun to watch them out there and see all the best guys in the world kind of practice and do their thing.”

top prospects looking at ice from seats

After the skate, the prospects walked into the hallway leading to the Oilers locker room. They met coach Kris Knoblauch, defenseman Mattias Ekholm and then Nurse, who told them he’ll never forget his visit to the Cup Final and to enjoy it.

“We’ll see you in the League,” Nurse said.

The prospects walked into the Oilers locker room. Amid a crowd of players, staff and media, Celebrini and Buium stood in front of McDavid’s locker, checking out his old, worn elbow and knee pads.

“Actually,” Buium said, “I really want to see Draisaitl’s curve.”

So, they went to the stick rack to check out Draisaitl’s legendary long, flat blade.

“That was pretty wild,” Buium said. “It’s, I think, the longest blade I’ve ever seen. I have no idea how he uses it, but obviously it works.”

Back in the hallway, they met Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, goalie Stuart Skinner and forward Evander Kane.

Kane meeting top prospects

“This is as big as it gets,” Celebrini said. “Watching the best players in the world prepare for this type of game, I feel like it’s just a learning experience, just kind of seeing how they approach it. I mean, you can obviously tell that they’re pretty laid back and they’ve done it before.”

Finally, they met McDavid. They chatted for a bit. Then McDavid left, and they laughed as giddily as almost any young hockey players would. Celebrini has skated and trained with McDavid, but the others hadn’t met him before.

“I didn’t want to stare at him too long,” Buium told the others, “because he’d be like, ‘What’s this kid looking at?’”

It probably won’t be long before Buium will be looking at him on the ice in the NHL.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Buium said. “I mean, I don’t know if anybody can actually defend that guy, but it’s really cool to think that we could be in their shoes sometime soon.”

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