It’s go-time, as they say.
With four teams remaining in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we have the draft order right up to pick 28 figured out. Dallas is without a first-rounder (it belongs to St. Louis) while Florida’s pick belongs to Montreal. Vegas and Carolina were able to maintain their first-round picks.
The men’s World Championships are well underway, and scouts are getting their final looks at Canada’s Adam Fantilli, Sweden’s Leo Carlsson and Austria’s David Reinbacher, amongst a few other lower level draft prospects. All three players will likely hear their names called within the first 10 picks of the NHL Draft, with Fantilli and Carlsson likely filling the two and three holes behind Connor Bedard.
Speaking of Bedard, he’s now solely focused on the start of his NHL career, almost certainly with the Chicago Blackhawks. I’ll be interested to see just how much he can accomplish this off-season to prepare for the grind of an 82-game NHL regular season.
The Memorial Cup looms, and if things pan out for Seattle, London and Halifax, there will be a number of scouts and general managers in attendance to get final high-leverage looks at several players; some first-year eligible and a handful of re-entries who will garner consideration. Of the first-year eligibles, Seattle features the likes of Uber-skilled Gracyn Sawchyn, reliable power-forward Nico Myatovic and steady-Eddie defenceman Sawyer Mynio. London has potential first-rounder Oliver Bonk, son of Radek, the up-and-coming — and still underrated — Easton Cowan, and the diminutive Denver Barkey. Halifax boasts 31-goal scorer Mathieu Cataford and the reliable Dylan MacKinnon. The Memorial Cup host Kamloops Blazers have an interesting prospect in right-winger Connor Levis.
The NHL Combine is also less than a month away and that event always unearths a number of storylines. The interview element is a key part of the process and gives teams the opportunity to complement their on-ice evaluations. Some teams call upon professionals to conduct certain character tests, where others simply use time-tested interview tactics to elicit answers. More and more, teams are paying attention and extrapolating the physical testing data gathered at the combine. At the very least, it’s a great place to hear scuttlebutt about all things NHL, especially with its proximity to the Stanley Cup Final and the draft itself.
The player breakdown of this draft is quite fascinating. Bedard sits atop the mountain, and has ever since he entered the WHL with exceptional status in 2020. Fantilli and Carlsson are in their own tier not just for their talents, but because their size separates them from an otherwise average to below averaged-sized, skilled, contingent of forwards.
This draft will look markedly different when considering the number of high-end defencemen available. In 2022, five of the first 12 players selected were defencemen, while a total of nine were taken in the first round. Of those nine, five were left shots and four shot right. It is likely the first five defencemen off the board in 2023 will all be right shots. That list extends well into Round 2 and beyond. I don’t expect nine defencemen to go in Round 1 — that number is probably closer to six.
The goalie conversation is always interesting, and while I don’t have one in my first round, there will be a good run of them likely to start going around pick 40. Taking a goalie in Round 1 is always a risky proposition, but it could be even more dangerous this year, considering the depth of skilled forwards.
The plight of Russian players also remains a mystery. Last year, three Russian-born players were taken in the first round, with just two of them having spent their draft years exclusively in Russia. Matvei Michkov heads this talented class of Russians, and he’s under contract in the KHL until 2026. There are at least two other Russian born-and-trained players who are definitely first-round talents.
This is our final draft ranking of the season. For an extended look at a longer list, please be sure to check out Jason Bukala’s latest. JB and I will also report from the NHL Combine and both of us will put out mock drafts closer to the NHL Draft itself.
1. Connor Bedard, C, Regina Pats (WHL): Playing the waiting game before he gets handed a Blackhawks jersey on June 28 in Nashville.
2. Adam Fantilli, C, U of Michigan (NCAA): Will his experience at the men’s worlds act as a springboard right into the NHL next season?
3. Leo Carlsson, C, Orebro (SHL): Projected to play wing with the men’s national team, he’s instead centering Sweden’s top line and not looking at all out of place.
4. Matvei Michkov, RW, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL): The video work and background checks will continue for just about every team as his talent is unlikely to match his draft position.
5. Will Smith, C, USNTDP: His season was capped by a U18 gold medal and a tournament-leading performance that matched Bedard’s 20 points in seven games. That may help Smith find himself being taken within the top three picks.
6. Ryan Leonard, RW, USNTDP: A 59-goal season with an eye-popping plus-93 rating, not to mention a style of play that looks like it would work in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, will be very appealing to teams.
7. David Reinbacher, D, Kloten (Switzerland): The gap is closing between Reinbacher and Axel Sandin-Pellikka being the first defenceman taken, but size will likely win out in Reinbacher’s favour, especially if a team thinks his offence projects well for the NHL.
8. Dalibor Dvorsky, C, AIK (Allsvenskan): Some teams have concerns about his skating, but just about all teams agree that he’s smart, tenacious and talented enough to produce at the next level.
9. Samuel Honzek, LW, Vancouver Giants (WHL): His game and personality scream pro. Skill set will allow him to flourish in a cycle system, or with a team that excels off the rush.
10. Otto Stenberg, C, Frolunda (SHL): Had an excellent end to the season when he was back with his peer group. He skates well, plays with detail and is constantly in good position to produce offence.
11. Colby Barlow, RW, Owen Sound Attack (OHL): There was enough currency built from last August right through to Owen Sound’s first-round exit in the playoffs to negate a mediocre finish at the U18’s where it was suspected he was not at 100 per cent.
12. Axel Sandin-Pelikka, D, Skelleftea AIK Jr. (Sweden): Solid two-way defender who rarely makes mistakes. Has shown great awareness and adaptability between league and international play.
13. Zachary Benson, LW, Winnipeg Ice (WHL): While his size may be a bit of a drawback, he’s never too far away from the puck, and never far from making an impact play.
14. Tomas Willander, D, Rogle Jr. (Sweden): Being in the shadows of other Swedish prospects has allowed him to quietly experience a year of steady growth and development.
15. Matthew Wood, RW, UConn (NCAA): Went from being a little-used player on the Hlinka team to one of the mainstays for head coach Jeff Truitt at the U18s. This, after leading his UConn team in scoring as the youngest player in NCAA hockey.
16. Oliver Moore, C, USNTDP: Teams will feed off his hockey-junkie personality, but they’ll really love his ability to play with pace to create offence.
17. Nate Danielson, C, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL): Super low maintenance player who can be used in any situation and play effectively in any part of a lineup.
18. Brayden Yager, C, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL): Not as much of a drop as this ranking will indicate, but the pack above caught-up and surpassed him over the course of the season.
19. Gabriel Perreault, RW, USNTDP: Is unbelievably smart, which allows him to make plays all over the ice while still being aware enough to avoid solid contact.
20. Daniil But, LW, Yaroslavl (MHL): Possesses every element needed to be an effective scoring forward and has an enormous frame with plenty of room to still grow into it.
21. Mikhail Gulyayev, D, Omsk (MHL): Is well-equipped to play a transitional style of game where he can use his great skating ability to consistently be part of the attack.
22. Eduard Sale, RW, Brno (Czechia): A polarizing figure in the scouting community. At his best, he projects to be a top-six NHLer. But is he at his best consistently enough to actually become a top-six NHLer? That is what teams will be weighing.
23. Calum Ritchie, C, Oshawa Generals (OHL): I’ve never heard more consternation about a player who consistently produces as much as Ritchie has over his draft year from start to finish. Maybe that’s because there isn’t that one element of his game that pops.
24. Oliver Bonk, D, London Knights (OHL): Good player from a good program with NHL bloodlines and size. What’s not to like?
25. David Edstrom, C, Rogle (Sweden U20): A late riser who was tracked most of the year, but missed out on a couple key events due to injury. Excellent showing at the U18s.
26. Dmitri Simashev, D, Yaroslavl (KHL): Using his great skating ability and reach to cut plays off. Good body and stick positioning make him difficult to get by.
27. Riley Heidt, C, Prince George Cougars (WHL): From a pure production standpoint this ranking is lower than it should be. There are some flaws in his game, but at this age, who doesn’t have those?
28. Nick Lardis, LW, Hamilton Bulldogs (OHL): A perfect fit for today’s fast-paced game where the combination of speed and goal-scoring ability are so highly coveted.
29. Theo Lindstein, D, Brynas (SHL): Has a Shea Theodore-like quality to his game, where his feet will allow him to consistently play big minutes with offensive upside that will develop in due time.
30. Ethan Gauthier, RW, Sherbrooke Phoenix (QMJHL): Playoffs were a microcosm of the season where he got off to a great start, but fizzled at the end.
31. Gavin Brindley, RW, U of Michigan (NCAA): High motor, high compete, high skill, short on size, but still highly effective playing against older — and bigger — NCAA competition.
32. Quentin Musty, LW, Sudbury Wolves (OHL): Effective mid-range scorer who has undercover play-making abilities. Hands work well in tight to elevate the puck or dish to a more open teammate.