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NHL Mock Draft 2023: After Bedard, who goes No. 2 out of Fantilli, Smith and Carlsson?

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Welcome to my first of what will be two mock drafts for the 2023 NHL Draft’s first round.

As I put the finishing touches on my own final draft board, this project takes a step back from my evaluations to consider potential targets and fits for each of the first 16 picks (in advance of a full first-round mock closer to the draft). I’ve spent the last couple of weeks asking around about team leanings and these selections try to combine my sense for the consensus about these players with the information I’ve gathered about specific interest in some of them, team and pool needs, and my understanding of each club’s amateur scouting preferences.

It’s meant to be my best guess for how things will play out. Wherever I’ve felt comfortable enough to hypothesize, I’ve also mapped out some team contingencies and other likely considerations for certain picks.

1. Chicago Blackhawks: Connor Bedard, C, Regina Pats

My rank: No. 1

There is no mystery or wonder at the top of the draft this year. We aren’t going to see a repeat of last year, when the hometown crowd in Montreal — given away by their collective gasp, pause, and then eruption — didn’t know who their Canadiens were going to announce until Juraj Slafkovský’s name left Kent Hughes’ mouth. It’s going to be Bedard, he’s going to live up to the hype, and the Blackhawks get to kick-start their rebuild exactly how they would have dreamt it up when they set out on their teardown about a year ago.

2. Anaheim Ducks: Adam Fantilli, C, University of Michigan

My rank: No. 2

I don’t think Fantilli to the Ducks is a forgone conclusion. I’m sure they will consider each of Matvei Michkov, Will Smith and Leo Carlsson in the weeks ahead. But he certainly makes the most sense, and fits with the combination of power, presence and competitive spirit that they targeted in selecting forwards like Mason McTavish and Nathan Gaucher in recent drafts. They’ve already got premier prospects coming on the blue line in Olen Zellweger and Pavel Mintyukov, who will join Jamie Drysdale and Jackson LaCombe. They’ve also got the QMJHL’s defenceman of the year Tristan Luneau on the upswing. Fantilli gives them their potential 1C of the future and the flexibility to move Trevor Zegras back to the wing if they want.

3. Columbus Blue Jackets: Will Smith, C, U.S. NTDP

My rank: No. 5

In theory, this is where things could start to get interesting. And yet the more I think about the Blue Jackets and the types of players they covet, and the stylistic fit of pairing one of Smith’s talent and playmaking ability with either likeminded wingers like Johnny Gaudreau or Kent Johnson or shooters like Patrik Laine or Kirill Marchenko (or better yet, one of each), the more sense he makes. The Blue Jackets need a true, game-breaking, point-producing star centre more than anything else out of this draft, and Smith (assuming the prototypical 1C in Fantilli is gone) gives them the highest potential upside.

4. San Jose Sharks: Leo Carlsson, C, Örebro HK

My rank: No. 4

I think the Sharks will strongly consider Michkov here, and he may well be the pick, but I’d sooner bank on Carlsson being the selection when push comes to shove. The Sharks have an abundance of 5-foot-10-ish forward prospects in their pool, and while Michkov is in a completely different stratosphere than William Eklund, Thomas Bordeleau, Ethan Cardwell, Daniil Gushchin, Tristen Robins, Ozzy Wiesblatt, Alex Young and company, I do wonder if that gives them enough pause to pass on the risk and the wait and go for the surer, sooner thing in a potential 6-foot-3 centre like Carlsson (who still possesses the finesse and feel that they clearly covet). It doesn’t hurt that he’d be joining countrymen in Eklund, Erik KarlssonFabian ZetterlundAndreas JohnssonOskar LindblomJacob Peterson and Filip Bystedt, either. He’s about to play with Zetterlund at men’s worlds, too.

5. Montreal Canadiens: Matvei Michkov, RW, SKA St. Petersburg

My rank: No. 3

I think there are two very different possible outcomes here for the Canadiens:

1. If Michkov is selected in front of them, they’re going to have a fairly simple decision to make, drafting whichever of centres Will Smith and Leo Carlsson is available to them at No. 5. That’s their best-case scenario, and it would be a huge win for an organization that needs two things above all else: a second high-end centre to pair with Suzuki, and a starting goalie.

2. If Michkov is there, are they prepared to take another winger (already having taken Slafkovský, Cole Caufield, Joshua Roy, Filip Mesar and others in recent drafts), play the long game, and swing on the most talented player available by a significant margin?

If the answer is that they’ve got their hearts set on drafting a defenceman or a centre and they use that as their impetus to pass on Michkov, then that probably also rules out well-liked wingers like Zach Benson and Ryan Leonard here. If it’s a defenceman, Austrian and National League standout David Reinbacher would be the likely choice. If it’s a centre, I almost wonder if they’d consider trying to move back rather than taking a Dalibor Dvorsky, Oliver Moore, Nate Danielson or Brayden Yager at No. 5. In the end, though, I still think Michkov would be the most likely selection — even if it’s far from a certainty. He’d be the player left with the highest likelihood of becoming a point-per-game, first-line talent. Kent Hughes knows he has to get this right and won’t want skipping on Michkov to be on his Wikipedia bio forever if he becomes as good as he has the potential to become, and the Habs brass appear prepared and committed to a longer-term rebuild if necessary. It’s important to note it could be a few years before Michkov steps foot in the NHL due to his KHL contract.

6. Arizona Coyotes: David Reinbacher, RHD, EHC Kloten

My rank: No. 15

It’s my expectation that Reinbacher, the consensus top D prospect in this class, will be picked in the 5-8 range based on the teams drafting there. I also expect that the Coyotes, the only team with two picks in the front half of the first round, will take a defenceman with one of their choices after having drafted forwards Logan Cooley, Conor Geekie and Dylan Guenther with each of their last three top picks. Knowing that Reinbacher isn’t likely to be there when it’s their turn again at No. 12, and knowing the quality of the talent pool at forward, I suspect their most likely play is to go D first because there are fewer of them to come by in this class. If they go forward here, though, keep an eye on Slovak Dalibor Dvorsky.

7. Philadelphia Flyers: Gabe Perreault, LW, U.S. NTDP

My ranking: No. 8

The draft may well get live before the Flyers’ selection, but if it doesn’t then I fully expect that their selection will be the turning point into the wide open anything-can-happen phase of the draft. I liked the track that colleague Charlie O’Connor was on in our staff mock draft when he argued in favour of Danny Briere and the Flyers taking a swing on a talent. They’ve got the shot-first guys with pro size in Cutter Gauthier and Tyson Forester. I’d guess they angle away from another player with a scoring tilt, like a Ryan Leonard or a Matthew Wood, as a result. Though a Dalibor Dvorsky or Nate Danielson would be the safe play for a 2C of the future, I don’t think that’s the profile they should be targeting with a pick of this value. And while I think they’ll strongly consider Reinbacher if he’s here, I like them to take a cut on a playmaker who can complement a Gauthier. That player may be Benson, whom O’Connor took and who’d be my pick if it were up to me. But I do wonder if the skill-smarts-creativity package of Gabe Perreault, who will also be Gauthier’s teammate at Boston College in the fall, makes the most sense. He’s not as close to NHL ready as some of the other options, but if Briere and company want to commit to a proper rebuild, then commit.

8. Washington Capitals: Ryan Leonard, RW, U.S. NTDP

My ranking: No. 11

I’d bet on Matvei Michkov and David Reinbacher being atop the Capitals’ wishlist. Between Alex Ovechkin and the decision to use last year’s first-round pick on Russian Ivan Miroshnichenko, they won’t be shy in picking Russians and would have a favourable path to smoothly bringing Michkov over. They’ve also used their last three first-round picks on forwards (see: Miroshnichenko, Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre), so Reinbacher would make a lot of sense. Reinbacher may also be the only non-Bedard/Fantilli to play in the NHL next year and that could be appealing to a franchise that wants to continue to push for the playoffs in this late chapter of Ovechkin’s career. With neither available though, I’d zero in on wingers Benson and Leonard, likely the two consensus top prospects left. I’ve gone Leonard because the sense I’ve gotten from scouts is that he’s going to be gone by this point (I think it’s more likely that the diminutive Benson lingers a little).

9. Detroit Red Wings: Nate Danielson, C, Brandon Wheat Kings

My ranking: No. 20

The Red Wings are notoriously tight-lipped about these things, but on a hunch I think they take a centre with their first of two picks in the first round. And Danielson, with his well-rounded game, tools across the board, and pro size and skating, just strikes me as their type. He’s a safe bet to be a solid 2/3C who could play behind Dylan Larkin, plus he’s on the older side of this group and would fit with the Red Wings’ timeline as they try to exit out of their rebuild and round a corner toward playoff contention sooner rather than later. If it’s not Danielson, and my hunch about them targeting a centre is right, the other names to know are Oliver Moore, Dalibor Dvorsky and maybe even Brayden Yager. Moore, the best skater in the draft, would appear a natural complement behind Larkin, one of the best skaters in the NHL, but the Red Wings seldom go to the NTDP well. And Dvorsky comes with questions about his pace and whether he’ll stick at centre, and was, until a standout showing at U18 worlds, believed to no longer be a top-10 pick by all those I spoke to. I still think both of those players could be targets for the Red Wings, but I just kept coming back to Danielson as the most natural fit for the type of player they covet.

10. St. Louis Blues: Zach Benson, LW, Winnipeg Ice

My ranking: No. 6

When teams have to put their chips on the table, small wingers tend to fall on draft day. I don’t think Benson will fall outside of the top 10 though, and he’s also not anything like the classic small wingers who tend to. Despite his size, he is a universally well-liked player whose two-way game and competitiveness have become as much his calling card as his high-end skill. He’s a playmaker and a driver and would be a great get for a Blues team that needs both. My only reservation in this call is that they do have their fair share of wingers on the way in Jimmy Snuggerud, Jake Neighbours and likely Zachary Bolduc. I could see them going after a Dvorsky, a Moore or a Danielson here as a result. But Benson’s too good a player to linger past this.

11. Vancouver Canucks: Dalibor Dvorsky, C, AIK

My ranking: No. 9

I’d harbour an educated guess that Reinbacher is the Canucks’ best-case scenario here, but I’d be shocked if he were still around, I don’t think defenceman Axel Sandin Pellikka is their type in Reinbacher’s absence, and Dvorsky feels like an excellent consolation prize for them both in the value he’d potentially give them at No. 11 and knowing that he’s the type of player different members of that staff would each value for different reasons. If he too is gone before they pick, and he may well be, I’d look at big wingers Matthew Wood and Samuel Honzek, both of whom they’d be really familiar with, check some of their boxes and have local ties (Wood is from Nanaimo, and Honzek plays for the Giants in Langley).

12. Arizona Coyotes (via Ottawa Senators): Oliver Moore, C, U.S. NTDP

My ranking: No. 7

I’m pretty confident the Coyotes would love to take Dvorsky, and wouldn’t even be surprised if they tried to move up from here to get him, but in his absence I think centres Oliver Moore and Brayden Yager make a lot of sense relative to where they’re picking, what they need, and the kinds of players they like. They drafted a competitive, high-end skater and University of Minnesota commit out of the national program last year, why not double down and go after another this year in Moore, who will join Cooley with the Golden Gophers in the fall and could also play with him at the 2024 world juniors in Sweden?

Given how sparse the Yotes have looked down the middle over the last few years, this would suddenly have the potential to look a lot different long term:

1C Logan Cooley
2C Oliver Moore or Brayden Yager (or, ideally, Dalibor Dvorsky)
3C Conor Geekie or Barrett Hayton

13. Buffalo Sabres: Axel Sandin Pellikka

My ranking: No. 16

I went with Matthew Wood for the Sabres in the staff mock, and I still think he’ll get strong consideration from Buffalo, who’ve turned another tall, scoring forward out of UConn into a pretty good player (see: Thompson, Tage), but Sandin Pellikka was gone in the staff mock and I do think the Sabres will be drawn to him as the consensus top D available after they took three forwards with their three first-round picks last year. In time, he could be the perfect No. 3-4 defenceman for the Sabres behind Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power. I could see them picking a centre in Yager or a well-rounded, safe, middle-six winger in Honzek, too. But Sandin Pellikka makes the most sense.

14. Pittsburgh Penguins: Matthew Wood, RW, UConn

My ranking: No. 10

The Penguins badly need to hit on a good forward prospect they land in a place in the draft where there will be a number of them. In the scenario I’ve plotted here, a natural centre in Yager or wingers Wood, Honzek, Eduard Sale, and Colby Barlow could be realistic targets. I think there are other scenarios where one or two of Oliver Moore or Nate Danielson are still here and one or two of those other five names I just listed aren’t, too. Of those remaining, though, I’d wager Sale is the least likely selection for a management and scouting group that is in a period of transition after the firings of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke. I’ve gone with Wood, who would likely be the highest-ranked player in a consensus league-wide ranking of those five names at the moment, and who could conceivably factor in as a scoring winger before the Crosby-Malkin chapter closes.

15. Nashville Predators: Brayden Yager

My ranking: No. 14

I took Yager to the Preds in the staff mock and I’ll stick with that choice here. He’s the top-ranked centre left, it’s been a position of need for them for what feels like forever, and it’s the right place for Barry Trotz to start his tenure. They’ve got plenty coming on the wing with Philip Tomasino, Juuso ParssinenLuke Evangelista, Zach L’Heureux and others as well. Yager checks a lot of boxes as a committed two-way centre who blends NHL scoring and skill with a direct approach.

16. Calgary Flames: William Willander, RHD, Rogle BK

My ranking: No. 33

I’m going to hear from scouts for not mocking Barlow and Honzek in this iteration, and while I think the Flames staff would strongly consider both here, their pool is deeper at forward (with Matt Coronato, Jakob Pelletier and Connor Zary) than it is on defence and a defenceman just seems more likely because of that. If Axel Sandin Pellikka were to linger this long, he’d be my bet here, but that feels like a bit of a long-shot scenario (more than one defenceman is going to go in the top 15, that’s just how the draft works). With Sandin Pellikka gone, the length and skating of William Willander and Dmitri Simashev likely positions them as the consensus next two top defencemen in the draft, though Russian offensive defenceman Mikhail Gulyayev would rank third on a minority of lists (mine included). Because of the geopolitical complications in Russia, Willander’s the most likely choice if they take a defenceman (he may be even in a world where Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had no implications).

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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