Scout's Analysis: Six players to watch at top of elite 2023 NHL draft class

Slovakia's Dalibor Dvorsky (15) celebrates a goal against Latvia during second period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship action in Edmonton on Friday August 12, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Prospects from around the world are, in some cases, weeks into their season and looking to improve their ranking in what's one of the deepest NHL drafts in recent memory. Connor Bedard has long been considered the top player in this draft class. There are, however, some other very intriguing options taking shape for NHL teams to consider.

Assuming Bedard doesn’t fall off a cliff this year he will be the first skater selected on June 28 in Nashville.

The battle for draft slots No. 2 and beyond will be intriguing to watch play out over the course of the season.

Here is my early-season analysis on other top prospects:


Team: SKA Saint Petersburg, KHL, Russia

Vitals: 5-foot-9, 158 pounds, left shot forward

A dynamic forward who has excelled when playing in the MHL, U18, and U20 levels over the past 18 months. Michkov is my second ranked player for the 2023 draft.

It’s too early to predict how the hockey world will view this player and the risk involved in selecting him too high. He is signed to a contract at SKA that runs through 2025-26. The team that drafts him is going to have to wait several years before he arrives in North America.

Politics and contract scenario aside, he is a player who could challenge Bedard for first overall based on skill alone.

It isn’t going to play out that way, but my job is to evaluate the players at this time of the season and then strategize more in the back half of the year.


Team: Brno Kometa HC, Czechia

Vitals: 6-foot-1, 165 pounds, left shot forward

Sale is coming off an outstanding tournament at the Hlinka/Gretzky Cup, where he was one of the top forwards at the August tournament in Red Deer. He had the full attention of every NHL team in attendance.

Sale is a creative forward with high-end instincts. He thinks the game at an elite level in the offensive zone. His ability to make plays off the rush on his own, or pull up and wait for secondary options to develop, speaks to his confidence with the puck on his stick.

On the power play he picked apart opponents from his weak side. He is riding significant momentum. Teams are already flocking to his games.


Team: University of Michigan, Big 10, NCAA

Vitals: 6-foot-2, 192 pounds, left shot forward

Fantilli enters his freshman season at the University of Michigan and will be relied upon to immediately shoulder much of the load offensively.

He is more than just offence, however. Fantilli plays the game quick and fast and has the fitness and compete to be used in all situations and play big minutes.

There is no question he is in the mix to be an early selection come June.


Team: AIK, Hockey Allsvenskan, Sweden

Vitals: 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, left shot forward

Slovakia is in the midst of a renaissance with its development model. Last season was a coming out party with Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemec being selected first and second overall at the draft in Montreal.

Dvorsky appears poised to take a run at a top draft slot in 2023.

He’s playing pro in Sweden’s second division and the challenge to produce at that level will test his ability at such a young age. When he slides back to play amongst his peer group at the J20 level or back home in Slovakia, he produces well over a point per game.

Dvorsky has good size, skates well and can play both centre and the wing. His skill set is a bit more understated than others at the top of the draft, but his results speak for themselves.


Team: Winnipeg Ice, WHL

Vitals: 5-foot-10, 150 pounds, left shot forward

Benson scored 25 goals and 63 points as a rookie in the WHL last season. He’s already averaging just shy of two points per game to start this year.

Benson is flat out fun to watch. He plays the game the right way and doesn’t cut corners in any zone. His compete, skill, speed and sense make him an attractive target at the top of this draft class.


Team: Moose Jaw, WHL

Vitals: 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, right shot forward

Yager was named the CHL Rookie Of The Year in 2021-22 after scoring 34 goals and 69 points for the Moose Jaw Warriors in the WHL.

He is the kind of player who looks to get pucks to the net off every zone entry. At the Hlinka/Gretzky Cup in August, he played to his identity offensively (5G, 4A) and played a primary role at the top of Team Canada’s lineup.

I’m still months away from revealing my mock draft and worldwide prospect ranking. The process will be fluid in the coming months.

One thing is for certain, though: 2023 is an elite draft class that will shape NHL franchises for years to come.

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