Whatever faint hope may have existed for a battle atop the 2023 NHL draft board looks to be gone, gone, gone.
A goner courtesy of Connor.
“It’s Connor Bedard’s world,” one NHL head scout said, “all the other prospects are just living in it.”
“It’s Bedard at No. 1 and a wide chasm to everyone else,” said another NHL head scout.
And yet there is still so much sizzle, substance, and a lot to like about the 2023 NHL draft, which is being heralded by scouts for its strong quality and quantity of prospects for the entire first round and beyond.
The 17-year-old from North Vancouver, B.C., dominating the 2023 World Junior Championship in Halifax as Bedard did — nine goals and 23 points in seven games to lead Canada to the gold medal — quelled any and all talk of a legitimate mid-season challenge to his No. 1 status. Not that there was widespread anticipation or fervent belief of that necessarily happening.
After all, Bedard was the unanimous No. 1 in TSN’s Pre-Season NHL Draft Rankings last September and 2023 has for quite some time been billed as the Connor Bedard Draft. And the 5-foot-9 3/4 inch, 185-pound Regina Pats phenom winger reprised that unanimous standing in TSN’s Mid-Season 2023 NHL Draft Rankings survey of 10 NHL scouts.
And he did so with a most emphatic exclamation point at the WJC.
“I can definitely say I didn’t have to think about it for even a split second,” another NHL head scout said, with a laugh. “Easy call.”
Still, there was a sense heading into the WJC that 6-foot-2 University of Michigan freshman centre Adam Fantilli, who is from the Greater Toronto Area, and/or fast-starting 6-foot-3 Swedish centre Leo Carlsson might use that platform to put some heat on Bedard and at least give the scouts a little something to think about at No. 1.
No such luck.
It should be noted that Fantilli and Carlsson — both late 2004-born 18-year-olds to Bedard’s 2005 birthdate that doesn’t see him turn 18 until July 17 — were quite good for Canada and Sweden at the WJC. They are No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, on TSN’s Mid-Season list.
Bedard was just too electrifying, too dominant for Fantilli or Carlsson to close the gap. And it wasn’t that Bedard simply shot out the lights with his patented lethal Auston Matthews-like release/shot, he showed such much more dimension to his game with elite-level vision and wow-factor playmaking and passing.
Then there was his sublime sense of occasion and flair for the dramatic at a time when the glare of the spotlight was so bright and the pressure so intense.
“In that [quarter-final] game [Canada played] against Slovakia, I was out of my seat, standing, for the third period and overtime,” an NHL scout said. “I don’t recall ever doing that before. [Bedard] took me right out of my seat. I was just standing there, appreciating him. And that game-winning goal…”
The scout never finished the sentence. Not only did Bedard lift him out of his seat, but his dramatic one-man-band overtime winner also to beat three Slovak skaters and goaltender Adam Gajan left the scout speechless, too.
From a purely on-ice hockey perspective, it was unfortunate that the one prospect in the world who’s considered to perhaps be the biggest threat to Bedard’s mantle as No. 1 wasn’t even at the WJC. That, of course, would be Russian 18-year-old left-shot, right winger Matvei Michkov, who was ranked No. 2 on TSN’s Pre-Season Rankings but who fell to No. 4 on the Mid-Season list.
Michkov wasn’t there because Russia was prohibited by the International Ice Hockey Federation from participating in the WJC because of Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The sanctions are as they should be. There’s no suggestion here that Russia should be allowed to compete in international hockey, certainly not as long as its war against Ukraine continues.
But in the admittedly narrow context of examining Bedard’s supremacy, it is the 5-foot-10, late 2004-born 18-year-old goal-scoring wizard Michkov who appears best suited, on the ice anyway, to give Bedard a real challenge as the best 2023 NHL draft prospect.
That is, if you can forget about all of the things you are not allowed to forget about in the real world — Russia at war with Ukraine and the associated sanctions; NHL GMs and head scouts not being able to travel to Russia to view Michkov live; not being able to see Michkov in the crucible of the World Juniors; and the fact Michkov has signed a contract (in the KHL) that is expected to keep him out of the NHL for at least three more seasons after this one.
But you can’t simply dismiss all of that and compare the two players in a vacuum. Michkov’s circumstances contribute to, and negatively impact, the evaluation of the player and where he’ll sit on NHL teams’ draft lists on June 28 in Nashville. That goes a long way towards explaining how and why Michkov went from No. 2 on TSN’s pre-season list to No. 4 at mid-season.
Not quite out of sight, out of mind, but you get the idea.
Michkov also missed the better part of two months in September/October when he was injured after a huge open-ice hit from former NHL defenceman Alexei Emelin in the KHL. He only played three games in the KHL with powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg before moving down to the second-tier VHL, where he scored 10 goals in 12 games. On Dec. 20, he was loaned for the balance of the season from SKA to Sochi, the worst team in the KHL. Michkov has four goals and six points in 13 games with Sochi.
Fantilli, Carlsson and Michkov form a triumvirate of blue-chip prospects who, for varying reasons, aren’t currently in Bedard’s stratosphere but who have separated themselves from the rest of the class in a strata of their own.
Of the 10 scouts surveyed, Fantilli received four No. 2 votes, compared to three each for Carlsson and Michkov. Fantilli had five third-place votes and one fourth-place vote; Carlsson had five third-place votes and two fourth-place votes; and Michkov had seven fourth-place votes. There’s not a lot separating the trio who all project as top-line NHLers.
No prospect, other than Bedard, Fantilli, Carlsson and Michkov, received a vote above No. 5.
“[Michkov] is the No. 2 guy behind Bedard in this draft, all day long for me,” an NHL head scout said. “But would you actually pick him at No. 2? When will he be taken? For a lot of teams, that could be a decision gets made by an owner instead of a GM or scout.”
How many years will an NHL team be prepared to wait for him? It appears to be a minimum of three. Could it be longer?
“What if he decides he never wants to play in the NHL?” asked one scout. “You would think he’ll eventually want to [play in the NHL] but is it guaranteed? In today’s world, you just don’t know for sure.”
But there are some NHL clubs whose patience with Russian star talent has been greatly rewarded.
Minnesota took Kirill Kaprizov in the 2015 draft and didn’t get him in the Wild lineup until five years later, but now he’s an NHL superstar and game changer.
Washington drafted Evgeny Kuznetsov in 2010 and waited four years for him to arrive in the NHL. St. Louis drafted Vladimir Tarasenko that same year and waited two-and-a-half seasons for him. The Caps and Blues both won Cups with those Russians playing instrumental roles, while the Wild have one of the NHL’s elite players in Kaprizov.
Of note, though, the Blues drafted Tarasenko 16th overall; the Caps took Kuznetsov 26th overall; and the Wild didn’t select Kaprizov until the fifth round. How far might Michkov slide before there’s a team willing to step up to take him?
“Well, isn’t that the question,” a scout replied. “Short answer is we don’t know. What I do think I know is some team is likely going to be gifted an extraordinary prospect at No. 4 or No. 5 or some number beyond that. To have a player that good, someone who should probably be talked about in the same breath as Bedard, go at No. 4 or 5 or some pick after that, well, from just from a really superficial hockey draft perspective, it would be a travesty. But it could happen. Whenever he’s taken, someone is going to fall into something quite special.”
“We’re not having any real debate right now about who’s No. 1,” another scout chimed in. “Fair enough, Bedard has been that good. But if Michkov had played in the World Juniors, would we maybe be debating it right now? We were certainly having that debate in Texas at the U-18 World Championships in 2021 and we were ready to have that debate after the first few games of the [first] 2022 WJC [in the bubble in Edmonton until the tourney got shut down due to COVID-19].”
In the spring of 2021 at the U-18 in Texas, double underager Bedard scored seven goals and 14 points in seven games for Canada; single underager Michkov had 12 goals and 16 points in seven games for Russia.
They were the dual talk of the hockey world then and it picked up again in Edmonton at the pandemic-shortened/postponed first try at the 2022 WJC, where Bedard had four goals and five points in two games and Michkov had three goals in two games.
“So, what I would say is this,” added the scout, “If there’s a better prospect in this draft than Bedard, it would be Michkov with the greatest chance of challenging him. We were having that conversation in 2021 and about to have it in 2022, but it’s much harder to have in 2023 because, with Michkov anyway, there are so many other considerations that have to be factored in.”
It’s a glorious year for a team to be picking in the top four of the draft. It’s why so many NHL teams are embracing “tank” mentality and far more concerned with NHL draft lottery odds than winning any games in this, the year of the Bedard Sweepstakes. And the draft riches extend beyond the Regina Pat.
One scout said that if Michkov, who missed being eligible for last year’s draft by about three-and-a-half months, had been included in the 2022 draft he would have most certainly gone first overall. Conversely, another scout opined that if 2022 first-overall pick to Montreal, Slovak winger Juraj Slafkovsky, were parachuted into this year’s draft, he would go no higher than No. 5 overall.
Speculative, to be sure, but it speaks to the level of excitement the scouts have for the upper echelon of the class of ‘23, especially compared to a year ago.
“The top four is special,” a scout said. “The Top 10 is very good, but relative to a lot of years, you can say the same thing about this year’s Top 20 or Top 30. I can go 40 deep and I still really like a lot of the prospects. So, yeah, it looks like a real strong group.”
Here’s a review of TSN’s Top 10 Mid-Season Draft Rankings, beyond Bedard, Fantilli, Carlsson and Michkov:
1. Connor Bedard. He isn’t as strikingly fast as Connor McDavid, he’s not as big and strong as Auston Matthews, he’s not as complete as Sidney Crosby, he doesn’t have the wingspan of Mario Lemieux, but his otherworldly release and shot combined with sublime vision and playmaking ability, plus the innate ability to rise to the occasion with moments of greatness on the biggest stage and somehow exceed excessive expectations has established him as “special,” a unique talent who has it, whatever it is.
2. Adam Fantilli. At 6-foot-2 and close to 200 pounds, the University of Michigan freshman centre from the Greater Toronto Area has elite size, strength and is an incredible skater, one of the very best in the draft. He’s a shoot-first goal-scoring pivot with some bite and projects as a potential lower-case No. 1 or upper-case No. 2 NHL centre.
3. Leo Carlsson. The Swedish centre, who can also play on the wing, is a smooth-skating, smart and skilled dual threat to score and make plays. His 6-foot-3, almost 200-pound frame provides a power element to his slick offensive game and he, too, like Fantilli, is projected as a 1B or 2A NHL centre.
4, Matvei Michkov. At 5-10 and 172 pounds, the Russian left-shot right winger may be the truest comparable to Bedard in this draft, an elite goal-scorer and gifted offensive talent who projects as a dynamic top-line NHL winger.
5. Zach Benson. The 5-foot-9, 160-pound Winnipeg Ice left winger has elite hockey sense, skill and drive that allow him to make plays and score goals in high-traffic areas. His multi-faceted toolbox overshadows any question about his size, or lack thereof. He projects as a 1B or 2A NHL winger.
6. Will Smith. The U.S. National Development Team U-18 centre is a shade under 6 feet tall but many scouts identify him as having the highest hockey IQ in the entire draft. He uses a vast array of offensive skills to drive a line alongside fellow first-round prospects Ryan Leonard and Gabe Perreault (son of former NHLer Yanic Perreault). Scouts say the trio, led by Smith, is the most dominant line in all of junior-age hockey.
7. Brayden Yager. The Moose Jaw Warrior heady sub 6-footer is arguably the most proficient two-way centre in the draft. He generates notable offence, especially on the power play, but plays a committed and mature defensive game and can also kill penalties. Scouts are not saying he’s Patrice Bergeron 2.0 but they are saying he approaches the game with the same mindset as the NHL’s premier two-way centre.
8. Colby Barlow. The Owen Sound Attack captain has a big-time shot and effectively uses his sturdy frame in the corners, on the wall and in front of the net to play a prototypical pro goal-scoring winger game. He has great leadership and intangibles, but also happens to be one of the draft’s better goal scorers.
9. Dalibor Dvorsky. The 6-foot-1 Slovak centre who plays in Sweden is a physically strong and capable, heady two-way centre who is not without good offensive instincts. But scouts are trying to discern if he has the higher-end skills to put up bigger offensive numbers. Those scouts who believe he has a higher offensive ceiling than he’s shown are more likely to rate him closer to five than 10.
10. Ryan Leonard. The sturdy 190-pound right winger can play physically and do the required heavy lifting on a top offensive line, but his skill – especially his shot – is high end. He is projected as a top-six NHL winger.
Some other trends and observations from TSN’s Mid-Season Rankings:
— This year’s mid-season list is top heavy with forwards, extremely light on defencemen (only five made it into the Top 32) and quite solid on the goaltending front.
The first 16 prospects are forwards.
The top-ranked defenceman is Axel Sandin-Pellikka, the sub 6-foot mobile, offensive-mind Swedish blueliner who played so well for Tre Kronor at the WJC. He is No. 17 on the list. The other defencemen who found spots in TSN’s Top 32 include: big Austrian two-way defender David Reinbacher at No. 20; dynamic Russian Mikhail Gulyayev at No. 24; offensive-minded Canadian Lukas Dragicevic of the WHL’s Tri-City Americans at No. 27; and London Knight two-way defender Oliver Bonk, son of former NHLer Radek Bonk, at No. 30.
By the way, the lowest the first defenceman has ever been taken in an NHL draft was 14th overall, when Winnipeg took Bobby Dollas there in 1983.
One goalie snuck into TSN’s Top 32, but at almost 6-foot-7 and 210 pounds, Michael Hrabal of Omaha in the USHL is hard to miss. Hrabal is TSN’s consensus No. 1 goalie prospect, but three more goalies made it into TSN’s Top 57. They include Canadian Carson Bjarnason of the Brandon Wheat Kings at No. 47; Slovak Adam Gajan, who has split this season between Chippewa in the NAHL and Green Bay in the USHL, at 56; and American Trey Augustine of the U.S. U-18 national team program at 57. Both Bjarnason and Augustine got some late first-round consideration from a few scouts.
— Canada leads the way in terms of nationality recognition in the Top 32 with 14 prospects, which is more than double the next country. There are six Americans, three Russians, three Swedes, two each from Slovakia and Czechia, and singles from Finland and Austria.
— It’s a big year for the WHL. Nine of the top 32 prospects on our list play in the Dub, including No. 1 Bedard, No. 5 Benson and No. 7 Yager. There are four from the Ontario League and only one from the Quebec League. There are two U.S. college players — Fantilli at No. 2 and Matthew Wood of the University of Connecticut at No. 14 — but both are Canadian. Wood was the British Columbia Hockey League’s top scorer and rookie of the year in 2021-22.
|1||Connor Bedard||Regina (WHL)||C||5’9 ¾||185||33||39||81|
|2||Adam Fantilli||Michigan (NCAA)||C||6’2||195||20||14||33|
|3||Leo Carlsson||Örebro (SHL)||C||6’3||198||28||5||16|
|4||Matvei Michkov||Sochi (KHL)||RW||5’10||172||16||4||6|
|5||Zach Benson||Winnipeg (WHL)||LW||5’9||160||38||25||65|
|6||Will Smith||USA NTDP (USHL)||C||6’0||181||33||23||62|
|7||Brayden Yager||Moose Jaw (WHL)||C||5’10 ½||166||45||20||54|
|8||Colby Barlow||Owen Sound (OHL)||LW||6’0 ¼||193||40||33||60|
|9||Dalibor Dvorsky||AIK (SWE-Als)||C||6’1||201||24||4||11|
|10||Ryan Leonard||USA NTDP (USHL)||RW||6’0||190||31||24||49|
|11||Oliver Moore||USA NTDP (USHL)||C||5’11||188||33||20||45|
|12||Eduard Sale||Brno (CZE)||LW||6’2||174||31||3||8|
|13||Calum Ritchie||Oshawa (OHL)||C/RW||6’2||187||41||17||40|
|14||Matthew Wood||Connecticut (NCAA)||RW||6’4||193||25||8||21|
|15||Nate Danielson||Brandon (WHL)||C||6’1 ¼||185||44||23||56|
|16||Ethan Gauthier||Sherbrooke (QMJHL)||C||5’11 ¼||176||43||17||47|
|17||Axel Sandin-Pellikka||Skelleftea (SWE J20)||D||5’11||176||21||13||27|
|18||Andrew Cristall||Kelowna (WHL)||LW/RW||5’10||167||36||26||62|
|19||Samuel Honzek||Vancouver (WHL)||LW||6’4||186||31||17||43|
|20||David Reinbacher||Kloten (SUI)||D||6’2||186||33||2||18|
|21||Charlie Stramel||Wisconsin (NCAA)||C/RW||6’3||212||21||4||8|
|22||Riley Heidt||Prince George (WHL)||C||5’10 ½||182||43||19||60|
|23||Gabriel Perreault||USA NTDP (USHL)||LW||5’11||165||36||33||69|
|24||Mikhail Gulyayev||Omsk (MHL)||D||5’10||172||14||2||18|
|25||Daniil But||Yaroslavl (MHL)||LW||6’5||203||20||13||22|
|26||Quentin Musty||Sudbury (OHL)||C/LW||6’2||200||32||12||48|
|27||Lukas Dragicevic||Tri-City (WHL)||D||6’1||192||41||10||50|
|28||Otto Stenberg||Frölunda (SWE J20)||LW||5’11 ¼||180||23||8||20|
|29||Kasper Halttunen||HIFK (SM Liiga)||RW||6’3||207||21||0||1|
|30||Oliver Bonk||London (OHL)||D||6’2||174||40||9||28|
|31||Koehn Ziemmer||Prince George (WHL)||RW||6’0 ¼||204||43||26||62|
|32||Michael Hrabal||Omaha (USHL)||G||6’6 ¼||209||21||3.18||.899|
|33||Maxim Strbak||Sioux Falls (USHL)||D||6’2||205||27||4||14|
|34||Danny Nelson||USA NTDP (USHL)||LW||6’3||202||35||11||27|
|35||Dmitri Simashev||Yaroslavl (MHL)||D||6’4||198||23||1||8|
|36||Bradly Nadeau||Penticton (BCHL)||RW/LW||5’10||161||35||29||69|
|37||Kalan Lind||Red Deer (WHL)||LW||6’0 ¼||158||39||14||41|
|38||Caden Price||Kelowna (WHL)||D||6’0 ¼||186||42||5||23|
|39||Cameron Allen||Guelph (OHL)||D||6’0||194||37||4||18|
|40||Theo Lindstein||Brynäs (SWE J20)||D||6’0 ½||180||14||2||7|
|41||Carson Rehkopf||Kitchener (OHL)||LW||6’1 ¼||195||40||18||34|
|42||Lenni Hameenaho||Pori (SM Liiga)||RW||6’0||173||33||4||14|
|43||Gavin Brindley||Michigan (NCAA)||RW||5’9||157||24||3||15|
|44||Hunter Brzustewicz||Kitchener (OHL)||D||6’0||188||40||3||32|
|45||Mathieu Cataford||Halifax (QMJHL)||C/RW||5’11||188||43||22||51|
|46||Tom Willander||Rogle (SWE J20)||D||6’1 ¼||180||28||4||19|
|47||Carson Bjarnason||Brandon (WHL)||G||6’3||186||33||2.84||.913|
|48||Noah Dower Nilsson||Frölunda (SWE J20)||LW||6’0||174||24||23||40|
|49||Jesse Kiiskinen||Lahti (SM Liiga Jr)||RW||5’11||178||25||16||37|
|50||Jayden Perron||Chicago (USHL)||RW||5’9||163||34||15||33|
|51||Andrew Gibson||S.S. Marie (OHL)||D||6’3||196||38||7||18|
|52||Jakub Dvorak||Liberec (CZE)||D||6’5||203||24||0||2|
|53||Ethan Miedema||Kingston (OHL)||LW||6’4||206||43||11||33|
|54||Andrew Strathmann||Youngstown (USHL)||D||5’10||187||27||2||22|
|55||Beau Akey||Barrie (OHL)||D||6’0||170||39||6||33|
|56||Adam Gajan||Green Bay (USHL)||G||6’4||176||5||2.37||.901|
|57||Trey Augustine||USA NTDP (USHL)||G||6’1||183||15||2.24||.927|
|58||Tyler Peddle||Drummondville (QMJHL)||LW||6’0 ½||195||43||18||29|
|59||Quinton Burns||Kingston (OHL)||D||6’1||180||36||1||21|
|60||Etienne Morin||Moncton (QMJHL)||D||6’0||181||42||15||45|
|61||Noel Nordh||Brynäs (SWE J20)||LW||6’2||196||24||8||15|
|62||Tanner Molendyk||Saskatoon (WHL)||D||5’11||184||41||6||25|
|63||Alex Ciernik||Vasterviks (SWE)||LW/RW||5’11||176||3||2||2|
|64||Aram Minnetian||USA NTDP (USHL)||D||5’11||192||34||5||21|
|65||Will Whitelaw||Youngstown (USHL)||C/RW||5’9||173||33||16||31|
|66||Brady Cleveland||USA NTDP (USHL)||D||6’5||211||30||31||5|
|67||Coulson Pitre||Flint (OHL)||RW||6’0 ½||172||39||18||38|
|68||Ondrej Molnar||Erie (OHL)||LW||5’10||170||13||1||8|
|69||Paul Fischer||USA NTDP (USHL)||D||6’1||195||29||2||13|
|70||Jaden Lipinski||Vancouver (WHL)||C||6’4||208||43||14||33|
|71||Luca Pinelli||Ottawa (OHL)||C||5’9||165||41||18||45|
|72||Jakub Stancl||Vaxjo (SHL)||LW||6’3||201||6||1||1|
|73||Brad Gardiner||Ottawa (OHL)||C||6’0 ½||178||42||16||26|
|74||Luca Cagnoni||Portland (WHL)||D||5’9||180||41||9||39|
|75||Gavin McCarthy||Muskegon (USHL)||D||6’2||185||20||4||18|
|76||Martin Misiak||Nove Zamky (SVK)||RW||6’2||194||24||0||8|
|77||Carey Terrance||Erie (OHL)||C||6’0 ¼||175||41||18||28|
|78||Drew Fortescue||USA NTDP (USHL)||D||6’1||176||35||0||17|
|79||Rasmus Kumpulainen||Lahti (SM Liiga Jr)||C||6’2||191||34||11||31|
|80||Gracyn Sawchyn||Seattle (WHL)||C||5’11||157||41||13||44|
|HM||Tristan Bertucci||Flint (OHL)||D||6’2||172||39||3||27|
|HM||Oscar Fisker Molgaard||HV71 (SHL)||C||6’0||165||25||3||4|
|HM||Emil Jarventie||KOOVEE (Mestis)||LW||5’10||167||16||3||4|
|HM||Roman Kantserov||Magnitogorsk (MHL)||RW||5’9||176||36||20||42|
|HM||Arttu Karki||Tappara (SM Liiga Jr)||D||6’2||176||28||12||34|
|HM||Nick Lardis||Hamilton (OHL)||RW||5’10 ½||165||44||19||32|
|HM||Dylan MacKinnon||Halifax (QMJHL)||D||6’1||188||37||5||17|
|HM||Matteo Mann||Chicoutimi (QMJHL)||D||6’5||222||25||0||5|
|HM||Nico Myatovic||Seattle (WHL)||RW||6’2||182||41||17||34|
|HM||Jesse Nurmi||KooKoo (SM Liiga)||LW||5’10||165||3||0||0|
|HM||Emil Pieniniemi||Karpat (SM Liiga Jr)||D||6’2||170||24||0||10|
|HM||Yegor Rimashevsky||Moskva (MHL)||RW||6’2||197||19||8||17|
|HM||Aydar Suniev||Penticton (BCHL)||LW||6’2||198||31||25||56|
|HM||Jordan Tourigny||Shawinigan (QMJHL)||D||5’10 ½||165||45||5||32|
|HM||Tuomas Uronen||HIFK (SM Liiga Jr)||RW||5’11||183||29||13||31|
|HM||Anton Wahlberg||Malmo (SWE J20)||C/LW||6’3 ¼||194||30||13||26|