Over the few articles that will make up this little series, the entire first round of the 2023 NHL Entry Draft will be previewed. The formula for the ranking was anything but simple as the desired outcome was one that considered the current season without completely ignoring the initial rankings that include two to three seasons’ worth of information.
Over twenty rankings were studied and accounted for in the creation of this ranking, with the most recent articles holding slightly more weight than the initial analysis of prospects. By increasing the points allotted per rank as the season progresses, players with great years will climb, but initial rankings that took 2-3 years of watching a prospect won’t be ignored, so as to try to lessen some reactionary rankings that are far too biased toward recent play.
For now, here are the 32 top-ranked prospects based on this calculation (four articles will cover fight prospects each), a fifth will do a quick scan of the second round. More importantly for our purposes, an opinion in regards to how the prospect would fit with the Habs. The Habs appear poised to select twice in the top 15, and then potentially in the bottom of the round depending on how their trade season shakes out. Therefore, it’s a great year to consider the entirety of the 32 covered prospects for our Habs.
#1 – Connor Bedard
Regina Pats (WHL) – C
The consensus top pick by a wide margin and has been for some time.
Bedard is currently scoring at well over a point-per-game pace and there’s no reason to believe he won’t keep that up for the rest of the season. In fact, he’s kicked it up a notch since the World Juniors and is now up to 81 points in just 33 games. He’s looked at as a generational player. His play at the WJC did little to dissipate the hype as he was the tournament’s best player by a wide margin despite his age.
To get this pick, the Habs would have to get lucky for a second year in a row. Their recent onslaught of injuries improves their chances, but they’ll have to start playing like the roster that is hitting the ice. Luckily, they may get two chances to land him as the Panthers appear poised to miss the postseason. Obviously, Bedard’s fit on any team is unquestioned and the Habs would immediately turn a corner in their rebuild if they were to be lucky enough to land him.
#2 – Adam Fantilli
University of Michigan (NCAA) – C
Was regarded by many as the third or fourth pick at this time last season. Has cemented his rank as the second pick now. The surprising part is that he’s now entrenched in this position by almost as much of a margin as Bedard has on him for the top spot. What separates Fantilli is his speed and ability to execute at that speed.
Fantilli is currently scoring at well over a point-per-game pace (40 points in 22 games) which is impressive for a freshman in the NCAA. He may not be regarded as a generational player, but he is still being considered as a better top pick than Shane Wright or Juraj Slafkovsky. He started slowly at the WJC but played much better when it mattered most. There is some work to do before he can dominate at the NHL level, though it’s clear the talent is there.
Another player the Habs would need to get lucky to acquire. Should they get lucky, it would likely mean that the long-term future for either Kirby Dach or Nick Suzuki would be on the wing. Luckily, both have already shown to be quite capable there. I think the most interesting thing if this were to happen would be the decision regarding the player for the 23-24 season. Do the Habs leave him in the NCAA and take another year to get some reinforcements, or do they want to immediately get him to Montreal and try to be competitive?
#3 – Matvei Michkov
HK Sochi (KHL) – RW
For a long time, the debate about 2023 was Bedard or Michkov. Due to the ongoing issues around Russia and Michkov’s contract status, that debate has disappeared. However, Michkov remains an undeniable talent that likely should be picked second and might yet slip further than this when teams actually step on the stage at the draft. One thing is for certain: the team that makes this selection will have to wait for his arrival but might be very happy with their own patience when he makes his way to North America.
Michkov was scoring at over a point per game in the VHL, had a quiet three games with SKA St. Petersburgh of the KHL and was then loaned to HK Sochi of the KHL where he’s produced nine points in 16 games. Unfortunately, Russia was not invited to the WJC, so Michkov did not have the chance to promote himself in a contest featuring most of the players at the top of this list. This detail likely increases his slide down this ranking.
The Habs won’t slide far enough down to pick third this season and have two better options if they get lucky with the lottery. However, it is absolutely possible that this pick remains on the board when the Habs first get to choose. The top-end skill is once again undeniable, but are they patient enough to make this pick? Are they willing to gamble on an eventual arrival to push them over the top in a few years? This pick would send a clear message that the team is not intending to turn the corner next season, and many would argue that’s an excellent decision. Especially if they end up with a pick after the top five and Michkov remains available.
#4 – Leo Carlsson
Orebro (SHL) – C
Was regarded as a top pick just outside the top three entering the season. With the many question marks that surround picks from Russia and the excellent start to his season, Carlsson has become the third pick on many boards and will likely be third here by the end of the season.
18 points in 33 games in a pro league for Carlsson has scouts gushing over his ability to cycle the puck and pick his spots for attacking the center of the ice. Playing against his peers as opposed to men at the WJC once again underlined this kid’s ability to produce. Slow start with only two points in the first two games. Carlsson finished with six points in seven games.
In terms of fit, aside from Bedard of course, this is likely the player that fits in with Slafkovsky the best. He’s a big body that wants to play that down-low cycle game and it would be quite interesting to see him and Slafkovsky wear down the opposition with long sustained pressure in the offensive zone. While he’s likely to be off the board as the Habs are unlikely to slip to the extent of naturally picking fourth, I wonder if the fit with this player tempts the Habs to offer their two top-15 picks to try to persuade the team picking here to swap. This idea likely became a pipe dream after Carlsson’s strong WJC performance.
#5 – Zach Benson
Winnipeg (WHL) – C/LW
Benson’s stock has stayed still since the start of the season as a player ranked between fifth and eighth in the draft. His intelligence, skill, and work ethic are praised by scouts while his skating is questioned. Seems like a high-floor, high-ceiling pick which is always interesting. He gets the higher of his projected ranking for his consistency in being ranked there.
69 points in 42 games for the Winnipeg Ice is some nice production for Benson. For fans of the advanced stats, he’s known as a play driver as well, so while he’s a bit smaller than others ranked this high, it appears that his IQ makes that an afterthought.
Everything I’m reading about him makes me think of Suzuki where the player is smart enough to be placed all over the lineup and still make himself an important piece. He’s got the same attributes and question marks as Nick upon being drafted, though a little fewer question marks around whether the skill will translate to the pro game. If the upside is a Suzuki with even more skill, I say sign me up whether he becomes a winger or ends up playing down the middle.
#6 – Eduard Sale
HC Kometa Brno (Czechia) – RW
Prior to the season, he was top three in one ranking and top 15 in another. In October and November, he was top five in many rankings, but there are still some doubters as he’s ranked as low as outside the top 15 by a few others. This type of divide is always a little worrisome with a pick this high.
Eight points in 34 games in a pro league is probably a big reason for the doubt around him, though he’s always had big production when playing against his peers internationally. He’s praised for his ability to read coverage to make himself an option in traffic when he doesn’t have the puck. Sale produced six points in seven games chasing a silver medal. It was a quiet six points, but one that reflected the skill set described above. He found soft spots in coverage and was dependent on his teammates making plays. But, when given the chance, he made the necessary plays to produce.
Call me crazy but this seems like the Slafkovsky gamble all over again. While the potential and high ceiling are certainly enticing, I think the Habs have already committed to a player who excels in short spurts on the international stage only to be much quieter in league play. For these reasons, while I find Sale to be intriguing, I’m thinking the Habs would let Sale slide and go elsewhere if they were to select sixth.
#7 – Brayden Yager
Moose Jaw (WHL) – C
Was regarded as a consensus top-five pick to start the year. Rankings now see Yager outside the top five, but who is replacing Yager in the top five varies per scout. Therefore, Yager remains quite high when using a points system. Yager should remain an undeniable top-ten pick. Despite continued production, questions have surfaced about his skating and ability to create offence off the rush. For comparison, the questions that are being raised about Yager are similar to those asked of Wright last season.
56 points in 49 games is solid, so the scouts are seeing something beyond the production to question. His strengths appear to be the willingness to play north-south hockey and his shot, so my immediate reaction is that at worst, he becomes an excellent winger. Some reports mention that he appears to be polarising amongst scouts, yet the lowest I’ve seen him ranked was fourteenth and frankly, there’s no way he should slip that late.
In terms of fit, I question Yager for the Habs. None of Suzuki, Caufield, or Slafkovsky are purely north-south players. I think he’s got enough raw talent that if the Habs end up picking him, it will be a huge increase in talent for the organization. However, some players lower on the list might have a better fit to the team identity than Yager.
#8 – Dalibor Dvorsky
AIK (HockeyAllsvenskan) – C
He is absolutely riding a consensus top-10 ranking to start the year to being this high on my ranking. A very slow start to the season has him ranked outside the top ten in more and more rankings. The question marks around his game appear to be the offensive instinct, so those are significant red flags for me for a top-ten pick.
11 points in 28 games in a pro league for Dvorsky isn’t terrible but reports of him having difficulty creating space for himself are a bit more worrisome considering the North American ice and speed of the NHL surely won’t make that task any easier. Playing on said smaller ice at the WJC didn’t seem to be an issue though as he produced three points in five games.
This is simple for me; I don’t like this pick this high for the Habs. I didn’t like the Habs going to the same league with both of their first-rounders last year; I would be unbelievably worried if they were to go back to Slovakia with this year’s top pick. Let me be clear, I have no problem with Slafkovsky or Filip Mesar, or Dvorsky individually, but to put that much stock in Slovakia seems insane. Sure, it would be great for the kids to find some familiarity in playing together, but if that league’s production doesn’t translate and the organization ends up with three busts? No thanks. Now, if they want to take that gamble because Dvorsky drops and he ends up in the 12-15 range, that’s a totally different story.