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2023 NHL Draft: Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli lead the early top-32 rankings

Sporting News 11/18/2022 Bryan Murphy
© Provided by Sporting News

The 2022-23 NHL season is well underway and fans are already starting to turn their attention to one of the most important dates on the hockey calendar: the NHL Draft.

The anticipation around the 2023 class has been extremely high for numerous years, thanks to two elite prospects breaking records on opposite sides of the globe. Canadian Connor Bedard and Russia’s Matvei Michkov have long been touted as the top two names in the class, and they are living up to that hype in their draft years. 

Outside of these two well-known commodities, this class continues to be extremely exciting thanks to several high-end forward prospects.

Often thought of as the number three behind Bedard and Michkov, the University of Michigan’s Adam Fantilli is very much in the thick of the conversation for top-two consideration. He’s been tearing up the NCAA early on in his rookie year. 

European’s Leo Carlsson, Eduard Sale, and Dalibor Dvorsky add to this impressive forward class while the WHL’s Brayden Yager and Zach Benson and OHL’s Calum Ritchie have been standing out on the CHL stage. 

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The forwards in this class outshine the defensive prospects eligible this year, but that may shift as the year progresses and defenders start to settle into their games. Russian rearguard Mikhail Gulyayev leads the pack right now, with the OHL’s Cameron Allen and Hunter Brzustewicz coming in at the next tier.

There are seven months until the draft kicks off in Nashville, Tennessee on June 28 and 29. While this ranking will go through a great deal of change between now and then, here is my first ranking for the 2023 NHL Draft.

2023 NHL Draft Top 32 rankings

1. Connor Bedard, C, Regina Pats (WHL)

The first-overall spot in this class is Bedard’s to lose. The centerman’s intelligence and skill are highlighted by a shot that might just be one of the best in the NHL in a few years. He never takes his foot off the gas and because of that, he can be relied upon in high-stress situations with the game on the line. Don’t let his 5-foot-10 frame scare you, he’s not afraid to play with a physical edge. Bedard looks like he’s set to be a superstar at the next level.

2. Adam Fantilli, C, University of Michigan (NCAA)

After two strong seasons with USHL powerhouse, Chicago Steel, Fantilli’s start to his NCAA career has been nothing short of spectacular. With his combination of size, strength, and skill, the center looks like he could step into the NHL and excel. His ability to create space for himself truly stands out, thanks to both his powerful skating and his soft hands. In a normal draft, Fantilli would be at the top of the class.

3. Matvei Michkov, RW, SKA-Neva St. Petersburg (VHL)

Watching Michkov process the game is remarkable. Every single thing he does is at a high speed and is utterly unpredictable. If there’s a seam in the defense, he’ll find it and be able to burn you. He can score with a quick release, a lacrosse goal, or a tip, or surprise with a slick highlight-reel pass to a teammate for an assist. Like Fantilli, a normal draft would have Michkov on top, but the fact that his KHL deal is through 2025-26 and his position versus the others does weigh in here.

4. Leo Carlsson, C, Orebro (SHL)

While the trio above him have been garnering chatter for years, Carlsson is a name that many haven’t heard of too much yet - but they will. Carlsson looks to be sticking in the SHL for the season and for good reason, exploding out of the gate and capturing every scout’s attention. He battles hard, with a level of never-quit that you love to see in a prospect. If he doesn’t have the puck on his stick, using his excellent weight shifts and slick hands to move through defenders, he’s likely digging for the puck in the corner. 

5. Eduard Sale, LW, HC Kometa Brno (Czechia)

Sale looks like he’s not too far away from being an impact player in the NHL. His ability to scan the ice and process makes it seem like he’s playing NHL23 and watching the game unfold with a bird’s eye view. He plays with intention and playing against men in the top professional league in Czechia, it’s working for him. His vision stands out, showing off an ability to thread the puck through defenders to a teammate, but don’t underestimate his ability to put the puck in the net either. 

6. Brayden Yager, C, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)

Speaking of putting the puck in the net, Yager looks to be one of the best in the class at doing just that. His technique is awe-inspiring, almost Auston Matthews-like in that there’s a subtle directional adjustment as he gets ready to unload. Combined with the fact that it comes off his stick like lightning, this is a player that has goaltender’s attention. For a goal scorer, he also seems to be committed to the defensive side of the puck, making him an attractive package for NHL teams.

7. Zach Benson, LW, Winnipeg Ice (WHL)

When you play with players like Matthew Savoie, Connor Geekie, and Carson Lambos, and you can still steal the spotlight as a stand-out player game in and game out, you’re doing something right. Benson’s a very smart player, who processes the game so quickly you can’t predict his next move. He continuously pushes the pace every time he hits the ice and isn’t afraid to drive the net. While he’s sound defensively, it’s his offense that really stands out, and will see his name called early in the draft.

8. Dalibor Dvorsky, C, AIK (Allsvenskan)

It hasn’t been long since Juraj Slafkovsky became the first-ever Slovakian drafted first overall, and his fellow countrymen Simon Nemec and Filip Mesar followed him in the first round. Continuing to prove that Slovakia is a growing hockey powerhouse, enter Dvorsky. The centerman chose to take his talents to Sweden for his development and it’s been paying off. His puck possession, vision, and two-way game stand out so far, and some more consistency in his game could see him rise draft boards even more.

9. Calum Ritchie, C, Oshawa Generals (OHL)

Looking more and more like the undisputed top draft-eligible player in the OHL, Ritchie has stood out in his short time in the league. He’s become a focal point of the offense for the Oshawa Generals, impressing with his two-way play, his high-end vision and playmaking, and the strength he has on the puck. He’s been regarded as a playmaker but his shot has been improving and his ability to get into the high-danger areas still allows him to find the twine.

10. Will Smith, C, U.S. National Team Development Program

Rounding out the top 10, the top USNTDP player is currently playing at a two-point-per-game pace. The only player to finish a season in the program above two points per game was Jack Hughes, so Smith’s feat is impressive so far. His ability to navigate traffic and drive the center of the ice, find a teammate through a seam or just his crafty puckhandling make him a very hard player to defend. He just seems to get better and better every game.

11. Matthew Wood, RW, University of Connecticut (NCAA)

While Fantilli is stealing the show in the NCAA for draft eligibles (and non-draft eligibles, honestly), Matthew Wood isn’t too far behind. The winger is coming off a year where he dominated the BCHL as a rookie, leading the league in points. Now in the NCAA, he’s playing at nearly a point-per-game pace, and will likely only improve as the season rolls on. He’s a big body that has surprisingly nimble hands, a hard, accurate shot, and is solid positionally. He needs some improvement in his skating but I believe the rest of the package is worth a high selection.

12. Colby Barlow, LW, Owen Sound Attack (OHL)

Barlow is a player I’ve watched since his OHL draft year, and he just continues to impress and take massive steps forward in his game. After a 30-goal, 47-point rookie year in the O, Barlow was given the “C” entering his draft year. He’s really taken his game from being regarded as a sniper to a well-rounded prospect with goalscoring as his elite skill. He’s utilized on the penalty kill, he battles hard in the defensive zone, and he’s extremely dangerous in the offensive zone. He’s been inconsistent to start the 2022-23 season, but I’m confident he’ll find his form.

13. Andrew Cristall, LW, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)

Cristall might just be one of my favorites in this class. He’s excellent at creating space for himself and his teammates. He’s so patient with the puck that he draws defenders in, opens up lanes for his team, and then can get them the puck. His vision and passing are excellent, he may be one of the best playmakers in the class. He’s positionally sound and a ton of fun to watch. 

14. Nate Danielson, C, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)

Like Barlow, Nate Danielson entered his draft year with the “C” on his jersey, a huge achievement for a young player in the league. It goes to show the level of leadership and dedication that Danielson has at his age. He’s a two-way forward that has a great, albeit underutilized, shot and knows how to dish it out. He never takes his foot off the gas. He looks to be an all-situations player.

15. Mikhail Gulyayev, D, Avangard Omsk (KHL)

It seems crazy that the first defender on the board is all the way down at 15, but that’s where we are at this point. It will change as the season progresses, and mock drafts will likely look vastly different from rankings this year because of it. Gulyayev has spent time in the MHL, VHL, and KHL this season, mainly in the KHL where he plays extremely limited minutes that could very well impact his draft stock. He’s an offensive defenseman that can start the play with his feet. He’s extremely mobile, elusive, and has a knack for anticipating passes.

16. Kasper Halttunen, RW, HIFK (Liiga)

The top player from Finland in the draft, Kasper Halttunen has been bouncing between the U20 SM-sarja and the Liiga with HIFK. In the U20 SM-sarja, he’s dominant at nearly two points per game. In the Liiga, he’s still finding his footing, which is normal for a young player stepping into one of the best leagues in the world. The promise is still there though, Halttunen is a big body with an even bigger shot.

17. Riley Heidt, C, Prince George Cougars (WHL)

One of the better playmakers in this class, Riley Heidt’s vision is remarkable. He can make plays in movement while on the rush or in the offensive zone on the cycle. His awareness and patience stand out with his ability to wait for the opportune time to dish a pass to a teammate, resulting in the maximum amount of space and/or a scoring chance. He skates very well and competes hard, making him an intriguing mid-round pick.

18. Ethan Gauthier, RW, Sherbrooke Phoenix (QMJHL)

The QMJHL has a weak class for the 2023 NHL Draft, but Ethan Gauthier is putting the group on his back. The forward had a solid Hlinka Gretzky Cup where he led the tournament in goals (six) and has carried that into the season, standing out in the Q. He plays a solid, well-rounded game, battles hard, and shows off an ability to get into the middle of the ice. He should continue to improve and could raise his stock throughout the season.

19. Jayden Perron, RW, Chicago Steel (USHL)

Jayden Perron isn’t going to get the love he deserves due to his 5-foot-8, 157-pound frame, but he’s absolutely deserving. He’s a ton of fun to watch. He’s creative, slippery, and quick. He can produce, starting his USHL season at over a point per game. He exudes confidence, is not afraid to go against players of any size, and uses his skill to navigate through them. He’s an exciting playmaker that steals your focus in every view.

20. Lukas Dragicevic, D, Tri-City Americans (WHL)

One of the early-season standouts this season, Lukas Dragicevic is looking like one of the best defenders in the class. His offensive package is very promising, thanks to his ability to walk the blue line, scan the zone, and find teammates through traffic. He’s always finding ways to move the puck up the ice. His defensive game is good as well, with good positioning and awareness in his own end. The decisions can be questionable at times, but the potential is extremely high.

21. Otto Stenberg, LW, Frolunda HC J20 (J20 Nationell)

Otto Stenberg is a ton of fun to watch. He’s extremely creative and confident, not afraid at all to take a high-risk chance - as can be seen with his two lacrosse goals last season. His possession is solid for the risks he takes, thanks to his high-end puckhandling that makes it seem like he keeps the puck on a string. His offense has been inconsistent to start his draft year, but he still shows that he’s competing hard every game and is worth the first-round consideration.

22. Hunter Brzustewicz, D, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)

Looking more and more like the top defender from the OHL in the class, Hunter Brzustewicz is a highly intelligent defender who isn’t flashy but is consistent. His reads show off his brains, reading the rush and attacks very well to break up a play. He’s patient in his approach, on both the defensive and offensive sides of the puck. He won’t be a risk-taker or a highlight-reel guy but looks to be extremely dependable.

23. Oliver Moore, C, U.S. National Team Development Program

You can always count on Oliver Moore to put up points. The centerman utilizes his speed, hands, and unpredictable routes to drive the net and make plays. He drives the play and constantly pushes the pace. He’s solid in his own end as well, showing off great defensive awareness and commitment to his team. I don’t think his ceiling is overly high (middle-six), but his floor is higher than many in the class.

24. Quentin Musty, LW, Sudbury Wolves (OHL)

The first-overall pick in the 2021 OHL Priority Selection, Quentin Musty is a big body with high skill. He has slick hands for a player of his size but throws a ton of weight behind his shot. He has good movement, while not high-end, and consistently drives the net. He’s one of the younger players in the class and is a little rawer than most, but there’s a great deal of potential here that’s worth the selection for a patient team.

25. Caden Price, D, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)

One of the younger players in the class, Caden Price has taken a notable step forward from his rookie season to his draft-eligible season. His bread and butter is his puck movement, both from his end on the breakout and in the offensive zone to create opportunities. He’s a fluid skater that has shown promising ability in his own end as a defender as well. I expect him to be a riser as the season rolls on.

26. Ryan Leonard, C, U.S. National Team Development Program

The third USNTDP player on this list, Ryan Leonard is already a fan favorite among the NHL draft and prospect sphere. He’s a player who only has one gear and it’s ‘go’. When he’s on the ice, he makes the other team know it and his teammates seem to feed off of it as they strive to match his output. Combined with his quick speed, hands, and hard shot, he’s a versatile player that fans will love.

27. Cameron Allen, D, Guelph Storm (OHL)

After winning OHL Rookie of the Year in 2021-22, Cameron Allen looked like the top defender in the 2023 class. The skill is still there, but his start to this season has left scouts wanting more. His decision-making and consistency aren’t always there, but when he’s on - watch out. He’s a mobile defender that can play physically, seems to win the majority of puck battles, and shows some creativity in the offensive end. If he can find his groove and maintain that level, he’ll shoot up rankings.

28. Gabe Perreault, LW, U.S. National Team Development Program

Yet another small-frame player, Gabe Perrault reads the play at a very high level. He’s extremely intelligent and quickly processes what’s happening on the ice. He makes split-second decisions to move the play forward or to create offense. He has great hands and shows off an ability to navigate traffic. He’s a good skater, he’s fearless, and helps in his own end. Building strength and continuing to improve his skating are keys to succeeding at the next level.

29. Axel Sandin Pellikka, D, Skelleftea AIK J20 (J20 Nationell)

Swedish defender Axel Sandin Pellikka has had a big start to his season, starting with a solid performance at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and transitioning into his J20 Nationell season. He’s even earned some games at the SHL level due to his play. Sandin Pellikka is a mobile defender that has no problem jumping up into the rush. He has some explosion in his first steps. He’s smart and aware in his own end, but he is a bit of a risk-taker at times. 

30. Luca Pinelli, C, Ottawa 67’s (OHL)

I’m always drawn to the guys that never take their foot off the gas, that never give up on a shift no matter where they are on the ice. That’s Luca Pinelli, a player that I believe will be a riser on every board as the season rolls on. He’s a very intelligent player, able to evade traffic, find teammates through congestion, and move the play forward under nearly any circumstance. He’s smaller, at 5-foot-9, 161 pounds, but he’s fearless. 

31. Bradley Nadeau, C, Penticton Vees (BCHL)

If there’s a player that I just couldn’t leave off this list, it’s Bradley Nadeau. He’s playing at a ridiculous two-points-per-game pace, projecting to hit about 108 points by the end of the season. For what it’s worth, recent draft picks Kent Johnson and Alex Newhook finished their 17-year-old seasons at 1.94 and 1.93 points per game, respectively. Nadeau is an intelligent, offensive weapon that shows extremely impressive vision and accuracy in his passing.

32. Dmitri Simashev, D, Loko Yaroslavl (KHL)

Russian defender Dmitri Simashev doesn’t pop when you only take a look at the scoresheet right now but when you watch him play, you can’t look away. The 6-foot-4 rearguard is extremely mobile, regularly jumping up into the rush or even leading it on his own thanks to his ability to build speed through crossovers. He protects the puck so well thanks to his long reach, allowing him to carry the puck in deep. Look for him to climb rankings all season.

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