NHL Mock Draft: Early Season Edition

Image Credit: NHL

The 2023 NHL Draft is shaping up to be a special one.

After an odd draft last season that saw two Slovakian prospects (Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemec) go with the first two picks over projected top choice Shane Wright, the 2023 draft will present a choice of three elite talents at the top, with projected number one selection Connor Bedard already being hailed as a generational talent. There are plenty of other projectable NHL stars in this group, and how they continue throughout the season could make teams gun-shy about trading premium selections this year.

While this class isn’t perfect and shouldn’t be expected to match 2003’s overall quality, this still has the potential to be the best rookie crop since 2015 (the McDavid-Eichel year, for the curious). There is still plenty of season to go through, but I’ve decided to project a mock draft in order to give out a general lay of the land and introduce some prospects that are worth a mention.

With that said, the Columbus Blue Jackets are on the clock.

1. Columbus Blue Jackets-Connor Bedard, C, Regina (WHL): We spent all season wondering who Columbus’s top center would be, but their struggles could lead to their answer being Bedard. While he isn’t the perfect prospect like McDavid was considered to be, very few players are as offensively gifted as Bedard is. Legit 50-goal potential right here.

2. Anaheim Ducks-Adam Fantilli, C, University of Michigan (NCAA): Fantilli is playing the Jack Eichel role: an elite talent that certain teams could favor. Not only is Fantilli leading the NCAA with 23 points so far, but his combination of size, skating, and offensive ability is going to make him a bona fide top center in the NHL. Look for him to be stapled to a line with Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry next year.

3. San Jose Sharks-Matvei Michkov, F, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL): While Russian prospects continue to struggle due to political issues and Michkov’s contract will mean the earliest he can arrive in North America is 2026, San Jose strikes me as a team willing to wait on him while they sort themselves out. Michkov is easily the most talented Russian prospect since the days of Ovechkin and Malkin, combining highlight-reel plays with a consistency you rarely see from draft-age players.

4. Arizona Coyotes-Leo Carlsson, C, Orebro HK (SHL): Carlsson is nowhere close to as flashy as the three players above him, but the fact he’s mentioned in the same breath as them speaks to his ability. Consider him a polished version of a top-five pick from this year in Cutter Gauthier: a big forward who has the skill, strength, and hockey IQ to play anywhere in the lineup.

5. Detroit Red Wings-Dalibor Dvorsky, C, AIK (HockeyAllsvenskan): Detroit has been the go-to destination for Sweden-playing prospects, so why change that now? Detroit has started to pick up some scorers, so picking up a strong two-way pivot who can make plays in Dvorsky to distribute the puck makes a lot of sense for Steve Yzerman. He’s lost a bit of ground on the top prospects of this class, but Dvorsky should still be a comfortable top-10 selection.

6. Chicago Blackhawks-Brayden Yager, C, Moose Jaw (WHL): The Blackhawks haven’t been bad enough to enter Connor Bedard territory, but they’ll be in good position to pick up arguably the next best prospect from western Canada. Combining quality offensive production with the defensive awareness you would hope to find in a center, Yager has the makings of a top-six center for the next decade.

7. Montreal Canadiens-Zach Benson, F, Winnipeg (WHL): With how much of a difference Martin St. Louis has made with Cole Caufield since arriving in Montreal, the prospect of a similar player in Benson joining the ranks is enticing. While not blessed with Caufield’s goal-scoring acumen, Benson’s playmaking and hockey IQ should make him a natural fit.

8. Philadelphia Flyers-Calum Ritchie, C, Oshawa (OHL): John Tortorella’s system requires players to be willing to make plays in their own zone, which is why Ritchie would be a great fit. Not only does he have the defensive awareness and faceoff skill that will make him a coaching favorite, but his playmaking and offensive productivity should make him a fan favorite as well.

9. Vancouver Canucks-Will Smith, C, U.S. NTDP: Smith has been a steady riser on draft boards all season long, with his most recent performance being a tournament-leading nine points at the Five Nations Tournament. With Vancouver potentially losing Bo Horvat in the near future, Smith will make for a reliable plan for a top-six center.

10. Ottawa Senators-Matthew Wood, F, University of Connecticut (NCAA): Another riser up draft boards, Wood’s combination of size and skill should make him a convincing target for an Ottawa team that has had no problem combing the NCAA for prospects. While he can use his six-foot-three frame better, that’s something that can be coached with time and experience; what can’t be taught is his devastating offensive skill that makes him a threat to score every time he hits the ice.

11. Buffalo Sabres-Eduard Sale, F, HC Kometa Brno (Czech): This feels a little too low for Sale, which speaks to the quality of this draft class at the forward positions. Sale’s skating and passing are among the best the class has to offer, which should make him a natural fit on a Buffalo team that looks to have some quality goal-scorers.

12. Nashville Predators-Oliver Moore, C, U.S. NTDP: The NTDP is very well-represented in this first round, as their gold-winning performance at the Five Nations Tournament opened some eyes on them. While Moore may not have the elite talent that some of his contemporaries may have, he stands out as one of the safer selections in that group. Draft him and enjoy landing a middle-six forward in two or three years.

13. St. Louis Blues-Colby Barlow, F, Owen Sound (OHL): Another relatively safe NHL projection, Barlow plays the two-way style that the Blues like to see out of their players. He’s a middle-six forward, but has the potential for more if his speed, shot, and penalty-killing acumen at least mostly translate well at the NHL level.

14. Seattle Kraken-Ryan Leonard, F, U.S. NTDP: I was debating giving the Kraken the first defenseman in this draft, but all of Leonard’s reports have me thinking they go with the energy player instead. Leonard is yet another safe bet for the NHL (notice a pattern yet?) due to his shot and competitive style of play.

15. New York Islanders-Ethan Gauthier, F, Sherbrooke (QMJHL): The Islanders can still use all of the scoring they can get, so why not get someone who can do that AND play the defensive-minded style the team is known for? Gauthier plays hard in all three zones and can impact the game in a variety of ways, regardless of whether the puck is on his stick or not.

16. Washington Capitals-Andrew Cristall, F, Kelowna (OHL): The Capitals have to presume that the player they select here will be for the post-Ovechkin era, so any skill they can get here will be a worthwhile investment. Despite his small stature (five-foot-ten), Cristall can make numerous plays on and off the puck, making him a perfect linemate for someone like Evgeny Kuznetsov in a few years.

17. Edmonton Oilers-Mikhail Gulyayev, D, Omskie Yasterby (MHL): It took until the second half of the first round for the first defenseman to come off the board, which should tell you how tepid this class is on the back end. While Gulyayev isn’t the rugged stay-at-home defenseman Edmonton needs right now, his Quinn Hughes-esque offensive game from the point should make him a good choice to replace Tyson Barrie in a few years.

18. New York Rangers-Kasper Halttunen, F, HIFK (Liiga): The Rangers have built themselves a quality team, but they are a little lacking on the right side. Halttunen has been inconsistent so far this season, but he has the makings of an NHL-caliber power forward.

19. Chicago Blackhawks (from Tampa Bay)-Gabe Perreault, F, U.S. NTDP: While he doesn’t get the recognition of linemates Smith and Leonard, Perreault’s game is more than enough to stand out on its own. His patience and intelligence make him a quality playmaker from the wing, and he would be a great fit with Yager if Chicago ties the two together.

20. Los Angeles Kings-Quentin Musty, F, Sudbury (OHL): Musty may not have turned out as the elite prospect everyone was hoping he’d turn out to be, but his game is more than worthy of a first-round selection. He’s a power forward with some skill to his game, which is something LA needs with Dustin Brown now retired.

21. New Jersey Devils-Cameron Allen, D, Guelph (OHL): With the Devils already being blessed with a cavalcade of impressive young forwards, they can continue to build on the defensive side. While Allen doesn’t have the game-to-game consistency down yet, he’s a strong two-way defenseman who can control play in the attacking and defensive zones.

22. Pittsburgh Penguins-Riley Heidt, C, Prince George (WHL): Heidt may seem like a forgotten man amongst a stacked WHL crop, but he’s already got plenty of NHL-ready tools at his disposal. His skills at the faceoff dot, skating ability, and playmaking should excite the Penguins, who traditionally have a good sense on how to develop talent.

23. Minnesota Wild-Gavin Brindley, C, University of Michigan (NCAA): The Wild have needed center depth for some time now, so adding a dominant freshman in Brindley makes sense for them. His skating and approach to the game should outweigh his five-foot-nine stature, but where he ends up on draft night will depend on whether teams see him as a center or a wing.

24. Winnipeg Jets-Jayden Perron, F, Chicago (USHL): If I were creating my 2023 draft sleepers list already, Perron would absolutely be the marquee name there. While some scouts are worried about his size (five-foot-nine) and low floor, Perron possesses all the high-end skill needed to make an impact. His time at the University of North Dakota next season will be interesting to watch.

25. Calgary Flames-Koehn Ziemmer, F, Prince George (WHL): Not only is Ziemmer leading Prince George with 16 goals and 33 points, but he’s only second in the entire WHL to Connor Bedard in both categories. While he certainly doesn’t have Bedard’s superstar potential, those are the kinds of numbers you’d like to see in a potential second-like winger.

26. Toronto Maple Leafs-Caden Price, D, Kelowna (OHL): Price’s scouting reports read similarly to Kevin Korchinski’s, and the latter’s rise up draft boards last year bodes very well for the former’s chances to land here. His two-way game and playmaking ability from the point certainly help his NHL projection, and he can easily slide into an NHL team’s top four within the next few years.

27. Montreal Canadiens (from Florida)-Michael Hrabal, G, Omaha (USHL): With Carey Price’s future still in question, Montreal’s lack of a future franchise goaltender in their system, and with a high draft pick already in their pocket, the Canadiens decide to take the plunge on a goalie here. Hrabal’s six-foot-six frame and athleticism make him a prototype goalie to today’s game, and his calm and confident approach should help his development.

28. Colorado Avalanche-Danny Nelson, C, U.S. NTDP: Make it five for the NTDP, as the Avalanche decide to go for another power forward to replace Nazem Kadri in the near future. He’s probably a step behind his teammates in terms of quality and potential, but his ceiling is as a Brock Nelson-type second-line center. Teams could certainly use that in their lineups.

29. New York Rangers (from Dallas)-Etienne Morin, D, Moncton (QMJHL): Just like Perron, Morin would absolutely be on my sleepers list if I made it today. Morin has absolutely burst onto the scene in his draft year, leading all QMJHL defensemen with seven goals and third with 20 points. He’ll be a fringe first-round contender with this current trajectory.

30. Boston Bruins-Hunter Brzustewicz, D, Kitchener (OHL): One of the more intelligent two-way defensemen available, Brzustewicz can help his team as a playmaker from the point and defending the rush at his own end. He has some skills similar to Charlie McAvoy, and the Bruins would love to turn Brzustewicz into a similar player at the NHL level.

31. Vegas Golden Knights-Nate Danielson, C, Brandon (WHL): There are very few prospect-team fits that make more sense than Danielson to Vegas. Outside of the obvious Brandon connection to GM Kelly McCrimmon, Danielson effectively plays the two-way style that Vegas has always looked for in their players.

32. Carolina Hurricanes-Otto Stenberg, C, Frolunda HC (SHL): While Stenberg’s projection as a center isn’t a lock, Carolina should have no issues with taking him here. Another dynamic forward that always looks to get involved with the play, Stenberg is as dynamic with the puck on his stick as it gets.

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