Sportsnet’s 2023 NHL Draft Prospect Rankings: December Edition

Sam Cosentino takes a look at the top prospects in the 2023 NHL Draft and checks in on some of the top names including Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli and Ryan Leonard.

What an exciting time of year for the scouting community. While league play tends to take a dip at this time of year, international play takes centre stage with the world juniors in the spotlight. The World Junior A Challenge is also an important scouting event currently taking place in Cornwall, ON. The two events provide a nice cross-section of players from all over the world who aren’t just projected first rounders. 

There are many opportunities to be gleaned from the world junior experience. Most countries will extend their rosters through pre-tournament games, and narrow it for the start of the tournament on Boxing Day. The expanded rosters allow younger players to gain valuable experience for future events. Expanded rosters also allow for viewing of draft eligible players who may be on the bubble, and thus provide good opportunities for scouts. 

Exhibition game looks are always helpful to see if players who are roster locks are just going through the motions or working as hard as they would when the games matter. And, as always, the more viewings overall, the better.

Whenever the world juniors are played on North American ice, as it will be in Halifax and Moncton this time around, it gives scouts a good indication of how European players adjust to the smaller ice. Does the physicality in their game elevate? Does the player work to get inside ice? How do defencemen handle themselves, goalies and their angling, etc. 

Once the real games begin, it’s a smorgasbord of NHL team prospects and draft eligibles doing their best to bring home gold. The WJC tournament is a haven for scouts, for team meetings and typically a pit stop or longer for GMs whose teams will be picking higher in the draft.

By all accounts, we’ll get to see the top three players on this list — and likely the first three players selected in June in Nashville — participate and play big roles on their respective teams. Connor Bedard will finally get an opportunity to play a full world juniors, while Adam Fantilli will make his U20 debut with Canada and Leo Carlsson will get to strut his stuff with the Swedes. 

If an 18-year-old player can elevate his game, or stick out amongst the crowd in this tournament, it’s typically predictive of future NHL success. The tournament itself can separate the elite draft eligibles from those who will be taken later in the draft.  

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Over the course of the past month, we’ve seen defencemen emerge in the 2023 class. Austrian sensation David Reinbacher is playing a ton of minutes in all situations for his Kloten squad. He will move back closer to his age-group as Austria occupies a spot in the top level of the world juniors. Lukas Dragicevic, playing for Tri-City, has also made a meteoric rise and at the time of this writing, is riding a 21-game point streak. Sweden’s Axel Sandin-Pellikka is also making waves, and will suit up for the Swedes at the world juniors. 

As far as the CHL goes, the WHL remains the gold standard. A look at the top 10 scorers in that league, you’ll notice six first-year draft eligibles, lead by Bedard, and includes his Regina teammate, Tanner Howe, who isn’t eligible until 2024. The OHL is expected to re-emerge as a powerhouse developmental league with the likes of Colby Barlow and Calum Ritchie. The QMJHL has a number of players, but few projected to go in the first round.  Even Ethan Gauthier has tailed off of late, yet is still living off a great Hlinka-Gretzky tournament from the summer.

All told, the 2023 NHL Draft projects to be deep and diverse. With the emergence of a few defencemen, the presence of a couple of goalies and a number of forwards with speed and skill, there will be plenty of options for GMs come June.  

For now, here are our December rankings. 

1. Connor Bedard, C, Regina Pats (WHL): Will spend a month at the world juniors and still return to the WHL as its points and goals leader.

2. Leo Carlsson, C, Orebro (SHL): Will be interesting to see how high he can elevate himself at the WJC on a star-studded Swedish lineup full of NHL drafted players.    

3. Adam Fantilli, C, U of Michigan (NCAA): There is no better stage to state his case to go first overall than with a strong showing at the WJC.

4. Matvey Michkov, RW, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL): Nothing changes for this uber-talented star in the making. But will that star ever shine over North America?

5. Brayden Yager, C, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL): Has been remarkably consistent in his production. Continues to improve in the faceoff circle and score big goals at key times.

6. Zachary Benson, LW, Winnipeg Ice (WHL): A play driver who handles the puck with quick hands. Surprisingly adept at protecting the puck based on his slight frame (5-foot-10, 159 pounds).

7. Will Smith, C, USNTDP: The brain and feet work really well together to allow him to continuously play at a high pace.

8. Dalibor Dvorsky, C, AIK (Allsvenskan): There is a power element to his game that should allow him to produce more consistently and that may happen at the world juniors.

9. Ryan Leonard, RW, USNTDP: One of four first-year draft eligible skaters selected to the American preliminary roster.

10. Colby Barlow, RW, Owen Sound Attack (OHL): Plays with details in his game. Is a threat to score from distance and off the rush.

11. Otto Stenberg, C, Frolunda (SHL): A complete player who will excel in a system where transitional play is the emphasis.

12. Oliver Moore, C, USNTDP: Definitely a speed element that is ever-present in his game. At times looks like New Jersey’s Mike McLeod at the same age.

13. Calum Ritchie, C, Oshawa Generals (OHL): Fascinating prospect who will be better for having an old-school, hard-nosed coach in Derek Laxdal who spent the past three years on an NHL bench. 

14. Kasper Halttunen, LW, HIFK (Liiga): Is highly effective at centre when playing against his peers, and that type of projection will help maintain his high draft stock. 

15. Riley Heidt, C, Prince George Cougars (WHL): Doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to shoot the puck, which may be because he is so good at distributing that he misses shot opportunities.

16. Ethan Gauthier, RW, Sherbrooke Phoenix (QMJHL): Production has dried up lately, but he has the ability to play the game a number of ways, and that will allow him to maintain position in a lineup. 

17. Mikhail Gulyayev, D, Omsk (MHL): Transitional defenceman who can break pucks out on his own. His hands resemble a skilled forward. 

18. Gabriel Perreault, RW, USNTDP: Possesses elite vision and playmaking abilities. Has the type of awareness in his game that helps him avoid solid contact.  

19. Nate Danielson, C, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL): A steady-eddie type of player who doesn’t jump off the page in any one element. Is consistently playing against the opposition’s best, which limits his ability to produce at elite levels. 

20. Eduard Sale, RW, Brno (Czechia): Shows dynamic puck skills that will bring you out of your seat, but if that fails, does he have enough of a ‘B’ game?

21. Jesse Kiiskinen, RW, Pelicans Jr. (FIN): Puck play makes him a dual threat. Shows flashes of being capable on the defensive side, but his strength is offensive blue line and in. 

22. Axel Sandin-Pellikka, D, Skelleftea Jr. (SWE): Excellent skater with lateral mobility and edge work that make him effective at both ends of the ice. 

23. Koehn Ziemmer, RW, Prince George Cougars (WHL): Plays with a power forward mentality and is an elite shooter. 

24. Noah Dower-Nilsson, C, Frolunda (SHL): Smart and creative player who sees the ice so well that he is constantly making plays. 

25. Lukas Dragicevic, D, Tri-City Americans (WHL): Currently riding a 21-game point streak, which began all the way back on Oct. 14.

26. Theo Lindstein, D, Brynas U20 (SWE): Continues to log third pairing minutes in the SHL. Didn’t make the cut for Sweden at the world juniors. 

27. Michael Hrabal, G, Omaha (USHL): Has some international currency and the start to his USHL season elevated him up the charts. Numbers have cooled, but the size (6-foot-6) will never be overlooked at that position.

28. Quentin Musty, LW, Sudbury Wolves (OHL): Has been on a tear since the end of October, with seven multi-point efforts in his past 14 games, including a seven-point night. 

29. David Reinbacher, D, Kloten (SUI): Playing in all situations against men, and having plenty of success on both sides of the puck.

30. Carson Bjarnason, G, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL): Gives his team a chance to win every night. Plays with a calmness that positively impacts the group in front of him.

31. Kalan Lind, LW, Red Deer Rebels (WHL): A fierce competitor who you love having on your team, but despise playing against. 

32. Cameron Allen, D, Guelph Storm (OHL): Has shown flashes of getting out of a season-long funk, but hasn’t looked like the same guy who won Hlinka gold. 

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