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2023 NHL Draft Preview

The 2023 NHL Draft is set to be among the strongest since the turn of the century. When we talk about top drafts in this timeframe you immediately think of 2015 and 2003. The first round of the 2003 draft featured 12 players to reach the 1,000+ game plateau and all but 3 players had varying degrees of successful NHL careers. Franchise type players were found throughout the 30 first round picks and even into the 2nd round. The 2015 draft however is eerily similar to this years group. You had your generational talent who had been hyped for years coming from Canadian Junior ranks in Connor McDavid followed by your dominant NCAA center in Jack Eichel. With the exception of some truly baffling decisions made by the Bruins right in the middle of the first round, the majority of players taken during the first round in 2015 have gone on to have very good careers.

This years crop could be not only better at the top 5 but as good in terms of overall depth throughout the top 32 picks. The top 5 draft eligible players listed below would all be solid arguments for number 1 overall in a normal draft class with 2-3 of the players being “generational” talents. Lucky for Sharks fans we come into this draft with the 4th overall pick as well as the 26th (acquired from NJ in the Timo Meier trade) and 36th picks. It is realistic to say that in less than 7 days the Sharks will be draft the 2nd best 17 or 18 year old in franchise history. For now we will continue to reserve the number 1 spot for Patrick Marleau despite the game and scouting being very different from the late 90’s. The depth of this class also bodes well for the Sharks as there is a strong chance they will have top 6 forward or top pairing d-men available at the 26th pick and maybe even the 36th pick.

I firmly believe teams should select the best player available specifically in the early rounds of the draft as opposed to selecting for position. However one must consider the varying degrees of risk that come with a 17 or 18 year old player. This year presents a unique example with Matvei Michkov. The situation in Russia as well as the 3 years remaining on his KHL contract will worry even the boldest of GM’s. It’s fair to wonder if that risk is simply too high for a GM who may not even be with the franchise by the time Michkov could be playing in the NHL. How far he falls is one of the top storylines leading into Draft Day.

For this year’s preview I have focused on the top 5 picks. While there is plenty of talent in the 6-15 range I simply think it would be disappointing for the Sharks to use the 4th overall pick on a player outside of this group. Additionally, I have listed out potential names to target in the 26-36 range as well as various draft day situations or trades Sharks fans could see play a role on Wednesday June 28th and Thursday June 29th.

Top 5 Prospects for the 2023 Draft

1.) Connor Bedard – Center

There really isn’t much to say about Connor Bedard that hasn’t already been said in the past 2 years. He’s far and away the most exciting prospect since McDavid was drafted back in 2015 and Bedard will be a superstar in the NHL fairly soon. He is lethal with the puck and is a danger to score from anywhere in the offensive zone. His release is unlike any other and he creates space with his elite puck skills. Double and triple teaming him really hasn’t had any success at either the Junior ranks or when playing against the best under 20’s at the WJC. This isn’t like Shane Wright last year, Bedard is locked into the number 1 pick which means he will unfortunately be going to Chicago. 

2.) Adam Fantilli – Center

Any non-Bedard draft and Adam Fantilli is going number 1 overall which as mentioned above is sort of the theme for the top 5 of the 2023 draft. Fantilli is coming off of a Hobey Baker winning season in the NCAA where he scored 30 goals and a whopping 65 points in 36 games for the Michigan Wolverines. The last player to have that level of dominance in the NCAA during their  draft eligible season was coincidentally also from the 2015 draft in Jack Eichel. Fantilli’s offensive game is elite headlined by his lightning quick speed and great skating. He has a high motor, constantly attacking and beating defenders 1v1 either on the outside with his speed or utilizing his puck-handling in the tight areas. Fantilli is the consensus number 2 pick and has been for well over a year. The Ducks are sitting at number two and recent rumors have said they could look to select one of the other top centers on the board but I can’t imagine passing on Fantilli here. He could go straight to the NHL as Fantilli has shown he is far above the competition level of the NCAA. Over the next 2-3 years, Fantilli will likely develop into the franchise building center every team covets.

3.) Leo Carlsson – Center

The third pick is where I expect things to get interesting. I see a strong argument for any of the players I have 3 through 5 going in this slot. In the end I’m going with Leo Carlsson as the 3rd best draft eligible player for 2023. He’s a 6-foot-3 center from Sweden who has a decent amount of skill, good hockey IQ and is already producing against pro’s in the SHL. This past season Leo score 10 goals and 25 points for Orebro in 44 games. This puts him with some great company in terms of SHL historical comparisons during a draft eligible season. We’re talking names such as Backstrom, Forsberg and Lindholm. Earlier in the season fans will likely remember the strong performance (7-3-3-6) with Sweden at the World Junior Championships where Carlsson excelled on a line with Sharks prospect Filip Bystedt. Then to wrap up the season Carlsson once again appeared for Sweden in the World Championships continuing to produce (8-3-2-5) against many former and current NHL players. I continue to flip between Carlsson and the next two players in terms of who I like better, and the reason I go with Carlsson here is that his floor is so much higher. At a minimum Carlsson looks like he will develop into a 3rd or 2nd line center with realistic upside of franchise center. He’s a bit less exciting than Smith and Michkov but his future in the NHL is fairly certain. The last 4-6 weeks have seen plenty of rumors with Columbus coveting my fourth ranked player Will Smith and there are some that even believe Carlsson could surpass Fantilli for number 2 overall. I would not be surprised to see Carlsson fall to the Sharks with the 4th pick.

4.) Will Smith – Center

Will Smith is one of my personal favorites in this draft class, primarily due to how exciting he is to watch. It’s reasonable to argue that Smith is the most “skilled” player in this draft. Committed to Boston College, Smith is likely to spend at least a year or two in the NCAA before being NHL ready but if his development continues on the current trajectory the team which selects him will have a dynamic center who could carry the top line as well as the power play. His puck-handling is elite often fooling defenders with his slick moves. Will Smith probably projects more as a playmaker but he is a strong finisher as well. This past season Smith was the top player on one of the strongest USNTDP teams in program history scoring 51 goals and 127 points in 60 games and followed it up with a dominant performance at the U18 tournament scoring 9 goals and 20 points in only 7 games. For comparison purposes only Auston Mathews and Jack Hughes have had more points per game among skaters who appeared in over 100 games for the USNTDP program. If there was a player in this top 5 who was more of a “boom or bust” type in terms of development it would be Smith but his upside can’t be ignored and for the most part I think the questions regarding the downside to his game have calmed a bit. A combination of Eklund and Smith could be dynamite for fans to enjoy over the next decade.

5.) Matvei Michkov – Right Wing

Rounding out my top 5 is Russian winger Matvei Michkov. We’ve been hearing about Michkov for years, ever since he burst onto the scene and dominated the U18 tournament as a 16 year old. Michkov is a dynamic forward who can deke, shoot and play the offensive side of the game at an elite level. Ranking Michkov 5th in this group is purely a product of the current situation with Russian prospects and specifically with him being under contract in the KHL for 3 more seasons. The situation in Russia is problematic and if I’m a GM picking in the top 5 with this years group I’d struggle to come to terms with some of those risks. If Michkov was already playing in North America I have no doubt he’d be going number 2 overall in this draft and there might even be some debate of him challenging Bedard, he’s simply that good. Scouts have struggled to watch Michkov over the past 18 months as Russia has been banned from competing in international tournaments so most viewings have been limited to streams of KHL action. Matvei battled with injuries but still scored 9 goals and 20 points in 30 KHL games. As a draft eligible player in terms of KHL production that puts Michkov with names such as Tarasenko, Kaprizov and Kuznetsov. Whether a team in the top 5 selects Michkov will boil down to risk tolerance, as well as preference for position. GM’s tend to put centers on a pedestal (and rightfully so) which could also play a role in Michkov not being taken before players like Carlsson or Smith. If Grier feels confident about Michkov and is willing to wait 3-4 years for any sort of certainty of his arrival in North America then Sharks fans could look forward to having a dynamic scorer with an immediate impact at the NHL level.

Players to Target for 26 & 36

Whether the Sharks decide to keep their picks at 26 and 36 is something to keep an eye as Mike Grier showed last year that he is willing to move around on Draft Day. I will cover some of those potential moves in the following section, but first these are some names to keep an eye on for the 26-36 range of the draft.

The 2023 draft class is heavily favored towards forwards in the top 20 but having the 26th pick could be perfect for getting a top defenseman in this draft. Similar to centers, defenseman tend to go earlier due to their positional value. It is likely that top names such as Sandin Pellikka and Reinbacher will be off the table but there are four d-men that could be available at 26. Lukas Dragicevic is a highly skilled offensive d-man coming from the WHL. This past season he scored 15 goals and 75 points in 68 games. As is common with young skilled defensemen like Lukas the defensive side of his game will need some development but he projects to be a player who could run the PP and get top pairing minutes. Similarly we have Mikhail Gulyayev who is another defenseman whose stock is lagging from the Russia risks. He could be the most skilled d-man in this draft but it would be surprising to see him selected in the top 20. Mikhail is a good enough skater to take the puck end-to-end while getting back in position on defense. Like Dragicevic his defensive play will need improvement prior to making the NHL. On the opposite end of the defensive spectrum we have Oliver Bonk from London of the OHL. Oliver’s strength lies in his defensive play. He’s a reliable d-man who can play a lot of minutes against opposing teams top players. While Bonk’s offensive game likely won’t stand out at the NHL level he does have some offensive abilities and could run the 2nd PP unit. Rounding out this group of defensemen is Tom Willander. The 6-foot-1 Swede is committed to play with Boston University next year coming over from the Swedish junior league. Willander had a strong U18 tournament and boasts high-end offensive abilities. Strong skating as well as playmaking abilities could lead to Willander running a power play in the future but he will likely need 2-3 years of development at the NCAA level.

If the Sharks feel they need to continue bolstering the organizations forward depth there should be some high upside players available in this range. Starting with Nate Danielson, a 6-foot-2 center out of the WHL. He could go as high as the 10-12 range but I have seen some projections with him falling to the 20’s. Danielson is a good skater and two-way center who despite playing on a weak team still registered 33 goals and 78 points in 68 games. Danielson likely projects as a 2nd line center who can play PP, PK and if his development goes well potentially be a first line center. Next we have an undersized winger in Andrew Cristall. If he was a couple of inches taller he’d likely go in the top 10-15 but its very realistic to expect Cristall to fall to the 2nd half of the first round. He is a highly gifted player who simply creates offense most shifts. This past season he scored 39 goals and 95 points in 54 goals with Kelowna of the WHL. Add Danil But to the list of Russians who could fall during the draft. He boasts top 15 talent but is expected to go in the 20-30 range if not later. He’s a rare 6-foot-5 winger with great puck-handling abilities. As is typical with tall players his skating isn’t great, but it is likely good enough to play at the NHL level. He was able to score 2 goals at the KHL level in 15 appearances this past season. Lastly there is Otto Stenberg a Swedish center coming off a beastly performance at the U18 tournament. His skating, shot and puck skills are all strengths and while he will have to work on consistency he has top line upside.

Typically I’m not a fan of selecting goalies high in the draft but with the Sharks having 3 of the top 36 picks, and the franchise struggling at the position, they could set their focus on Michael Hrabal. The 6-foot-6 Czech goalie is committed to play at UMass starting in the fall and has a modern day NHL mold. He’s big, positionally sound and athletic. I’d lean more towards the 36th overall pick with Hrabal but being the top goalie in this draft he could already have been selected by this point.

Potential Draft Day Trades

With the Sharks picking at number 4, they really need to come away from this draft with a future star. As mentioned earlier, anyone outside of the 5 names above would be disappointing. However, there are certain scenarios I’d be interested in making moves on the first day of the draft. With the Sharks having a pick at 26 and 36 this gives them opportunities to move up. I’d love to see Grier be aggressive if one of the higher rated players begins to fall in the first round. Forwards such as Ryan Leonard or Zach Benson have been generally viewed as top 10 picks but some scouts aren’t convinced and believe they could fall out of the top 10. If either is available in the 12-18 range, Grier would be wise to make a trade sending both 26 and 36 as well as another pick in 2024, the reverse of his trade down last season. The Sharks prospect pool already has solid depth but is lacking that high end talent so coming away from the draft with Smith/Michkov and Benson/Leonard would be a fantastic jump start to this rebuild. 

Another scenario Grier might look to move up would be if one of the top defenseman are still available in the 12-20 range. Axel Sandin Pellikka and David Reinbacher are both projected to go anywhere from 6 to 15th overall. While neither of these players look like franchise defining d-men they are still the best available this year and each would arguably become the Sharks top prospect among defensemen. 

Grier could be looking to acquire an additional late 2nd round pick or an early 3rd round pick. After 36th overall the Sharks do not have another pick until 94th overall. Additional picks could be acquired by trading down a few spots from 26th overall or 36th overall.

Lastly is the potential trade of Erik Karlsson. Grier and Karlsson appear to be on the same page in terms of searching for a trade partner as he looks to join a team competing for the Stanley Cup. One year ago Karlsson’s trade value wasn’t very high but following a historic season he is likely going to be named Norris Trophy winner. While his contract (11.5M for 4 more seasons) is an issue there are ways in which the Sharks could still get a big return for EK65. A team in the playoff picture would benefit from adding a player of Karlsson’s caliber but likely will require some retention from the Sharks. I’d guess that a first round pick will be a key piece of the return for Karlsson (plus hopefully a lot more). Maybe the Penguins believe they have a few years left in their window with Malkin and Crosby and send the 14th overall pick to San Jose. Seattle has the 20th overall pick and is coming off a great run in only their 2nd season. Could they look to add an elite talent with their abundance of cap space? The Maple Leafs (28th overall) might look to bolster their defense and make some big changes under new management, but a trade with them will require salary going back to the Sharks. Lastly, I look at the Red Wings (9th & 17th overall picks) to potentially make a move for Karlsson. They might be a bit less desirable for Karlsson as Red Wings are still on the playoff bubble but EK65 would be a great addition for them and a mentor for their highly touted young defensemen. A Karlsson trade will be difficult but is not impossible and should be strongly pursued by Grier on draft day.

Sharks Predictions

I think the Sharks will have some movement on the first day of the draft. However, if the Sharks stay at 4th, 26th and 36th overall, I predict the Sharks will select Will Smith, Tom Willander and Michael Hrabal.

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