You can gauge the hype of this draft by how many times a graphic is shown during TV broadcasts depicting the odds of a certain team winning the 2023 Draft Lottery. You see it during national telecasts and regional shows featuring the league’s bottom-feeding teams. If you’re a fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Anaheim Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks, Arizona Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks or the Montreal Canadiens, you have to be feeling pretty good about your chances of being in the mix to win the lottery and ultimately selecting Connor Bedard to hasten the fortunes of your rebuilding team.
While Bedard’s play has driven most of the hype, the overall depth of this draft class does factor in when teams are considering what second place and beyond looks like in the lottery.
My colleague, Jason Bukala released his top 40 last week and his analysis provides more context and more of a scout’s acumen. While our thoughts differ slightly, we tend to think the same way about players, with Jason leaning on his vast experience in the industry and me relying more on what I’m able to glean through personal interviews with the players themselves or those with whom they are associated. More simply, I tend to put more of an emphasis on the off-ice, while Jason leans more towards on-ice.
As we approach the NHL trade deadline, the haves and have-nots are separating themselves. The ask from selling teams in just about any trade discussion often starts with a first-round pick in return. At time of writing, there are four teams that don’t have a first-rounder (Dallas, Florida, NY Islanders, and Tampa Bay). Four teams hold a second first-round pick (Chicago, Montreal, St. Louis and Vancouver), but the Canadiens seem the only one of those that could have two picks inside the top half of the opening round. Vancouver’s second first-rounder has been lottery protected by the Islanders, whereas Montreal’s (Florida’s pick) is not.
There are three teams with three second-round picks (Anaheim, Buffalo, and Seattle) and those will be coveted either at the deadline, or once we get to the draft in June, especially after the completion of Round 1. The value of a second-round pick has jumped exponentially over the past three years as teams look to take swings on players earlier in the draft that may be able to play sooner and thus are more cost effective.
Getting back to this draft class, last month I mentioned the emergence of a number of defencemen and this trend has continued into the month of February. While we’re not likely to see a defenceman come off the board in the first five picks of this draft, I do believe we will see our first one come off the board right around pick 10. Of course that could all change once draft picks are moved at the deadline or in the days leading up to, or at the draft itself.
A deeper dive into this entire class elicits a few interesting facts. Similar to last year, the 2023 draft will be full of international flavour. In 2022, we saw nine countries represented in Round 1, including Slovakian-born players taken with the first two picks. We’re likely to see eight countries represented in the first round of the 2023 draft, with more to follow in the ensuing rounds.
This draft still leans heavy on the speedy, skilled-forward types, most of whom are below average (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) NHL-sized packages. Size does matter, and typically we see bigger, heavier teams go deeper in the playoffs. With the recency bias that comes from the draft being so close to the Stanley Cup Final, GMs will lean towards size if two players are of similar skill sets. In fact, I think organizations in general are moving back towards size, with one scout I spoke to commenting “the NHL is still a big man’s game.”
As we move towards trade deadline day on March 3, which teams will acquire additional draft or young prospect assets to move the needle in the future?
Here’s our February rankings.
1. Connor Bedard, C, Regina Pats (WHL): Regina’s playoff fortunes will likely determine whether or not a spot on the men’s World Championship roster is in his future.
2. Adam Fantilli, C, U of Michigan (NCAA): Aiming to become just the fourth freshman in the past 24 years to score at a two-points or more per game rate.
3. Leo Carlsson, C, Orebro (SHL): Ice time and point production have slipped, but his projected SHL numbers would still have him in the top five all-time for first-year draft eligibles.
4. Matvey Michkov, RW, Sochi (KHL): Puck skills, creativity and playmaking are all at an elite level. Off-ice questions are starting to pop-up.
5. Will Smith, C, USNTDP: Regardless of the situation or the competition, his game doesn’t change and he always plays with pace.
6. Zachary Benson, LW, Winnipeg Ice (WHL): Does everything well and isn’t afraid to go to the hard areas to get it done.
7. Ryan Leonard, RW, USNTDP: A player who uses his sturdy frame to hunt pucks on the forecheck and protect them once turned over.
8. Brayden Yager, C, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL): Has consciously worked on becoming a better distributor and the numbers show that (40 assists in 53 games), but his best asset remains his shot.
9. Colby Barlow, RW, Owen Sound Attack (OHL): Is a player who projects to have success at the next level knowing there’s a solid B game if the A game isn’t going.
10. Eduard Sale, RW, Brno Kometa (Czechia): Was on an island for a winless Czech team at the Four Nations, but his world junior performance set the standard for projection.
11. David Reinbacher, D, Kloten (Switzerland): Possesses all the tools to project as a top three defenceman at the next level.
12. Dalibor Dvorsky, C, AIK (Allsvenskan): As projections of an elite producer have cooled, his overall 200-foot game has improved enough to have him still sitting comfortably in the top half of this draft class.
13. Samuel Honzek, LW, Vancouver Giants (WHL): May be the sleeper who upsets the top 10 by the time we get to June.
14. Nate Danielson, C, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL): Supremely responsible player who thrives on match-ups on the defensive side, but not at the expense of skill on the other side.
15. Axel Sandin-Pellikka, D, Skelleftea AK (Sweden Jr.): A fluid skater who processes the game well and can adjust on the fly. Will see some PP time at the next level.
16. Oliver Moore, C, USNTDP: His blazing speed makes him a threat off the rush and his ability to handle the puck at high speed also makes him a one-on-one threat.
17. Gabriel Perreault, RW, USNTDP: Similar to Benson in size, smarts and the ability to drive play all over the ice.
18. Mikhail Gulyayev, D, Omsk (MHL): A blazing skater with above average stick skills. Attention to detail in his own end will be required.
19. Otto Stenberg, C, Frolunda (SHL): A complete player who plays with details away from the puck. He’s on both sides of a number of chances, yet piling up big numbers doesn’t come easily.
20. Riley Heidt, C, Prince George Cougars (WHL): Scouts wonder if he’s the type of player who will thrive when the pace hastens at the next level.
21. Matthew Wood, RW, UConn (NCAA): Has been on a tear since the calendar flipped to 2023. His size (6-foot-4, 193 pounds) and scoring ability stand out in this class of smaller skilled forwards.
22. Calum Ritchie, C, Oshawa Generals (OHL): The CHL/NHL prospects game summed Ritchie’s game up perfectly. No one dynamic element jumped off the page, but he finished with two points in a 4-2 Team White win.
23. Quentin Musty, LW, Sudbury Wolves (OHL): Scouts are interested to see if he can regain the elite play he displayed after the coaching change, but before missing a month due to injury.
24. Andrew Cristall, LW, Kelowna Rockets (WHL): In a pool full of slight and smaller offensively gifted forwards, Cristall remains one of the top point producers (62 points in 36 games).
25. Ethan Gauthier, RW, Sherbrooke Phoenix (QMJHL): Continues to be tested as Sherbrooke’s lineup has gotten older and deeper, leaving fewer minutes.
26. Oliver Bonk, D, London Knights (OHL): Continues to refine his raw skill set, but has a hockey brain that scouts are raving about. That element has pushed him up the ladder.
27. Noah Dower-Nilsson, C, Frolunda (Sweden J20): The trait of making those around him better definitely suits this player.
28. Theo Lindstein, D, Brynas (Sweden J20): Solid Four Nations performance has him back on track after battling through a number of injuries earlier in the season.
29. Lukas Dragicevic, D, Tri-City Americans (WHL): A play driver from the back-end is hard to find. He leads his team in scoring, which is rare for a defenceman.
30. Carson Bjarnason, G, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL): Technically sound with a grounded personality, to go along with the size required by most teams, all makes him a late first-round pick.
31. Kalan Lind, LW, Red Deer Rebels (WHL): His performance in the prospect game was nothing new to Red Deer’s staff, but it was an eye opener for those who haven’t seen this lifelong pest.
32. Cameron Allen, D, Guelph Storm (OHL): Able to overcome the early-season pressure from high expectations of the team and himself. He’s playing a much more simple game yet not quite the same one he displayed in his 16-year-old season.