B/R’s Initial 2023 NHL Draft Rankings: Connor Bedard and the Rest of the Top 5
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The 2023 NHL draft is expected to feature one of the best classes in recent memory.
The grand prize? Connor Bedard, a 17-year-old phenom considered to be a generational-level prospect on the level of Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
Ahead of Monday night’s NHL draft lottery, we are unveiling the first edition of Bleacher Report’s NHL draft rankings.
Agree or disagree with our assessments? Sound off on them in the comments section of the B/R app.
Players’ statistics, heights and weights via Elite Prospects.
1. Connor Bedard, C, Regina Pats (WHL)
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The spotlight put a threatening glow on Bedard this season. Considered the best prospect since Connor McDavid in 2015, Bedard had a litany of players behind him who in any other season might be considered for the first pick. Any falloff could have created doubt about his ability to handle the immense pressure of expectations.
He didn’t even flinch. Bedard posted 71 goals and 72 assists in 57 games for the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League. His 2.51 points per game were the highest by a WHL player of any age since Ray Whitney’s 2.57 in 1991.
His 23 points in seven games for Canada at the 2023 World Junior Championship topped the leaderboard, with USA’s Logan Cooley (last year’s No. 3 overall draft pick) a distant second with 14. In fact, it was the fourth-highest total by any player at the tournament all-time and easily the best by a draft-eligible player. The Vancouver resident beat out the previous record of 18 held by Jaromir Jagr (also in seven games).
Bedard’s hands are what make him a generational talent. Simply put, he is one of the best shooters hockey has ever seen. His shot release is effortless. He has zero tell and casually hits the corners of the net with velocity.
His secret is that he doesn’t need space. He attacks the middle lane and rifles off a shot the very second a lane becomes available to him. His small size (5’10”, 185 pounds) actually becomes an advantage in this way as he just needs to find a small pocket to skate into and then the slimmest of shooting lanes. Bedard will push or pull the puck to the toe or heel of his blade to change the angle and shoot in a flash.
Defenders often feel compelled to mark him tightly, as even a window of space means danger. But doing so is also perilous. Bedard is a brilliant stickhandler who beats defenders with clever maneuvers and casual evasiveness. He changes the angle of attack the second he sniffs out a defender about to make an aggressive reach for the puck and navigates around them.
Even the best attempts to defend him are mostly futile. Bedard is the rare kind of shooter for whom there is no such thing as a low-danger shot. He beats goaltenders from bad angles with regularity.
This goal-scoring ability serves as the foundation for an almost equally impressive knack for setting up teammates. Teams cannot defend him as they would any other player, which creates all sorts of tears in their defensive structure. Bedard creates these breakdowns and then exploits them.
Adam Herman @AdamZHerman
Here’s the power of Connor Bedard. Everyone is so afraid of his shot that a forward abandons his assignment to take away his space to shoot. <br><br>Bedard sees this and has the poise to saucer pass it to his teammate backdoor for an easy finish. <a href=”https://t.co/Yf5sIsQ0yU”>pic.twitter.com/Yf5sIsQ0yU</a>
He has little physical game to speak of and has work to do defensively. That latter point will be particularly crucial given that he plays center. He’s never going to be a complete player like a Sidney Crosby. Bedard is so good offensively that the weaker points of his game are write-offs.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in draft hype—particularly with a draft class as strong as this one—but with Bedard, there is no such thing as getting carried away. As long as he remains committed and ends up in a healthy environment, Bedard should have a long career in which he is challenging for the league lead in goals and points perennially.
2. Adam Fantilli, C, University of Michigan (NCAA)
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Here is a shining example of how rebuilding an NHL team requires luck as much as anything else. Some team that loses the Connor Bedard sweepstakes will nonetheless land a player that the lottery winners in both 2022 and 2021 wish had been available to them at first overall.
With Fantilli, the opposition has a better idea of what he is about to do but is helpless in stopping him. There are no real flaws to his game physically.
Those who can keep up with the 6’2″, 187-pound Canadian often lack the strength to deal with him physically. He attacks the middle lane and pushes through like a linebacker bursting through an offensive line.
Fantilli is unpredictable with the puck. His wrist shot is powerful, and the left-hander picks his corners. On the power play, he sets up in the right circle for one-timers. He’ll carry the puck to the net front and score from in-tight with soft hands. With shooting as his base, Fantilli will sell the shot to misdirect the defense and slip the puck to a teammate down low for tap-ins.
The Michigan freshman produced one of the greatest seasons in the history of NCAA hockey. His 1.81 points per game (from 65 points in 36 games) is the most by a draft-eligible player since Maine’s Paul Kariya in 1992-93, and Fantilli scored more goals (30) than Kariya (25) in three fewer games. Over the past 20 NCAA seasons, Fantilli has the second-best PPG rate of any under-20 player; only a 19-year-old Kyle Connor produced better (1.87) seven seasons ago for the Wolverines.
Fantilli could make a career on offense alone. That is all the more reason he deserves praise for his all-around game. Fantilli is a heavy forechecker and ferocious hitter. He’s a laborious backchecker who comes below his own goal line to support the play and helps create turnovers and zone exits.
And it’s not just that he is able to play the penalty kill; he is fantastic in that role. He takes away lanes, forces turnovers and is a threat to create offense.
No matter the situation, Fantilli still holds up. Faceoffs? Fantilli is 52.9 percent at the dot, per InStat. Need some fire and passion? Fantilli will bring energy during a lull in the game or get into a chirping match after whistles. His only serious issue is a propensity for trying to do too much at times and make a hero play with the puck. It’s a common problem for a talented young player who just moved to a higher level of competition.
Fantilli is not the best player in the draft, but he is the most complete. He’s going to be a bona fide first-line center in the NHL who thrives in every situation.
3. Matvei Michkov, LW/RW, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)
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Here is a sentence I do not write lightly: Matvei Michkov is the best draft-eligible winger the NHL has seen since 2007, when Chicago selected Patrick Kane first overall.
Michkov is at his best when he’s starting along the walls or behind the net and is a threat to create even from these ostensibly low-danger positions. He’s a high-end playmaker who penetrates the middle lanes and finds teammates in scoring areas.
He does not hesitate to carry the puck into the offensive zone even when he is alone against multiple defenders. Despite the mismatch, Michkov usually maintains possession long enough for teammates to join him. The Russian winger is the draft’s best stickhandler, and it’s in this way that Michkov’s 5’10”, 148-pound frame actually becomes an advantage; with short arms and a low center of gravity, Michkov maneuvers around defenders with ease even when he’s seemingly backed into a corner.
Michkov isn’t a physical player, but he’s active in stick battles. While he’s not going to hand out many hits, he does not shy away from contact, either. He is strong at the waist and in the legs, and opposing players struggle to knock him off the puck.
Let’s put his season in perspective. Michkov tallied nine goals and 11 assists in 27 games with Sochi of the KHL (plus three with parent club St. Petersburg), which is far and away the league’s best-ever showing by a first-time draft-eligible player. Michkov’s 0.67 points per game ranks above what Artemi Panarin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Kirill Kaprizov and Pavel Buchnevich tallied in their age-19 seasons.
When watching him play, it’s hard to miss the similarities between him and players like Panarin and Nikita Kucherov. Like Panarin, he creates zone entries in impossible situations and shows incredible playmaking ability. Like Kucherov, he is a lethal shooting threat. There is every reason to believe Michkov will be a superstar just as those two are—maybe better.
Besides his skating and defense, the biggest concern with Michkov is his availability. Russia’s war with Ukraine has created numerous geopolitical consequences that are bleeding into hockey. Even without that, Michkov is under contract with St. Petersburg for three more seasons. The earliest Michkov’s drafting team will see him is the spring of 2026.
But we’re talking about a rare player who should be able to give his drafting team 10-15 years of superstardom. Michkov is the best Russian prospect since Evgeni Malkin in 2005. If not for the off-ice context, he’d be the second player on this list without hesitation. If he does fall because of optics and/or logistics, then it’s going to be a franchise-changing moment for whoever decides to take the plunge.
4. Leo Carlsson, C/LW, Örebro (SHL)
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Bedard, Fantilli and Michkov were locked in as the draft’s three best prospects before the season began. The fourth spot is where the draft looks wide open.
Leo Carlsson beats out heavy competition thanks to one of the most impressive seasons by a Swede in recent memory. The Örebro forward tallied 10 goals and 15 assists in 44 regular-season games, which puts him tied for ninth overall by points per game since 1990. Better yet, he played some of his best hockey for Örebro during the playoffs, collecting nine points in 13 games.
It can be easy to forget Carlsson’s age. The left-hander is a clever stickhandler given his size (6’3″, 194 pounds). He uses his length well to hold the puck away from defenders or get around them. Although he’s not a particularly agile skater, he navigates around defenders with changes of direction with the puck.
Carlsson is predominantly a playmaker in the offensive zone. When he’s at his best, he’s moving the puck almost as quickly as he receives it. He has strong spatial awareness and knows his passing options prior to receiving the puck. As a result, he’s often making quick one-two passing plays to find teammates in open spaces quicker than the defense can adjust for.
Carlsson lacks real shooting ability. The goals he does score come from soft hands around the net.
While at times he uses his size well, there are other moments where he looks underripe. He can be leveraged out of puck battles and unsuccessful when trying to tie up a puck-carrier.
Although he played on the wing for Örebro, Carlsson has played center at the junior level, and that’s the position where his drafting team should initially aim to develop him. His high hockey IQ and playmaking abilities in the middle of the ice make him projectable at center. Regardless of whether he ends up, Carlsson projects as a first-line playmaker who thrives on the power play.
5. Zach Benson, LW, Winnipeg Ice (WHL)
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Benson stood out last season in the WHL by holding pace with the Ice’s other top players; among them were Matthew Savoie (drafted ninth overall in 2022) and Connor Geekie (11th).
The 5’10”, 159-pound winger managed to do even better this season as Winnipeg’s best player, leading the team with 98 points in 60 games. Benson drives possession in a number of different scenarios but is at his best when he’s pushing the pace. With his combination of straight-line velocity and ability to change directions expeditiously, Benson is able to create and attack open ice.
Benson also makes sound decisions with the puck. When Benson is in the offensive zone, he is ambitious and decisive. When he finds a shooting lane, the left-hander takes it. When he dishes the puck to a teammate, he’s immediately moving to the next spot to get open for a return pass.
But he can make plays in other ways as well. When lacking options, Benson can slow the game down and hold up the puck. He’s effective in the cycle, despite his size, because of his tenacity and stickwork.
Benson is a true dual threat in the offensive zone as a passer and shooter who can create from the perimeter but also score in high-traffic areas.
He won’t get the full credit he deserves because of his size, but Benson is a complete winger. He’s dogged on the forecheck and backcheck. He fights for pucks and makes up for lack of strength by creating leverage with his stick, working hard in the defensive end and forcing turnovers at the blue line.
Benson will not turn 18 until May 12; the British Columbia resident is one of the younger players in the draft and may have more room for growth. Because he already thinks the game at a high level, Benson will be NHL-ready once his body catches up.
“Benson is going to be a high-end decision maker with two-way utility the second he steps into the league,” one NHL scout told Bleacher Report. “He’s so physically raw that that might take a couple of years, but he’s going to be a legit driver right off the hop.”
In this way, Benson is something of a step down from the four names above him on this board; all of those players are either on the precipice or immediately ready to step onto NHL ice. Nevertheless, Benson is immensely talented and has all of the tools to become a first-line, possession-driving winger in the NHL.