The Leafs Nation’s 2023 NHL Mock Draft: Picks 1-8
Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
By Alex Hobson3 months ago
The Stanley Cup Final has officially wrapped up, and if you’re the type of hockey fan that consumes the sport around the calendar, your focus has likely shifted towards the draft.
There’s no shortage of storylines around the draft this season. After a 2022 draft where, for the first time in a while, there wasn’t a consensus number one overall pick, we’ve switched to the complete opposite in 2023. If you’re a hockey fan and, in the year 2023, don’t know who Connor Bedard is, I think it’s safe to say you’ve been living under a rock.
On top of the Bedard sweepstakes, of which the Chicago Blackhawks came away with the right to select him first overall, there’s an abundance of forward talent rounding out the players who are projected to go high, including the University of Michigan’s Adam Fantilli, Sweden’s Leo Carlsson, and the highly-skilled yet polarizing Matvei Michkov out of Russia.
With the June 28 draft approaching quickly, this marks the start of my new mock draft series for The Leafs Nation. The series will be split into four parts, and because the Maple Leafs don’t pick until 28th, we won’t get to them until the final of the four parts. That said, if you’re interested in how I think the rest of the draft will shape out, I’m happy to have you along for the ride.
Please note that this mock draft does not account for any potential trades. There are always trades at the draft, so this mock almost certainly won’t reflect the final results. Without further ado, let’s kick things off with what could be the only pick I get right.
1. Chicago Blackhawks – Connor Bedard (C, Regina Pats, WHL, 5-foot-10, 185 pounds)
I’ll do my best to give some analysis here, but really, there’s nothing I could say about Bedard that hasn’t been said 1000 times already. He’s the first player since Connor McDavid in 2015 to have the “generational” term floated when describing him, and for good reason. The North Vancouver native became the first player to ever receive exceptional status from the Western Hockey League (WHL), granting him the right to make his debut at age 15 instead of the standard age of 16.
The numbers speak for themselves, and so does his play when you watch him. Bedard recorded a ridiculous 71 goals and 143 points over 57 games for the Regina Pats, a pace of over two points-per-game, and he almost single-handedly dragged Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2023 World Junior Championships, finishing the tournament with nine goals and 23 points in seven games.
The last two core members of the early 2010 Blackhawks in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews just left the organization, and the team will almost immediately have the opportunity to select the most talented player since McDavid. Not a terrible time to be a Blackhawks fan.
2. Anaheim Ducks – Adam Fantilli (C, U of Michigan, NCAA, 6-foot-2, 187 pounds)
It’s a bit of a cliche, and we hear it a lot of the time when there’s a clear cut first overall pick, but if Fantilli didn’t have the misfortune of sharing a draft class with Bedard, he would undoubtedly be first overall pick worthy. The Toronto product took the unconventional route of playing out his draft year in the NCAA rather than playing in the OHL like most Ontario-born players do, but the decision proved to be a good one for him.
In 36 games, Fantilli tallied 30 goals and 35 assists for 65 points by the end of the season. The numbers are comparable to what Jack Eichel did in his draft year, and given his strong all-around game, it’s hard to envision a scenario where he doesn’t develop into a number one centre in the NHL. He has a natural goal scoring touch, plays with a physical edge, and has strong defensive instincts. Should the Ducks select him, he’ll add a massive boost to an already-talented young team along with the likes of Trevor Zegras and Mason McTavish up front.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets – Leo Carlsson (C, Orebro HK, SHL, 6-foot-3, 195 pounds)
The Blue Jackets have been out of contention ever since the bubble year, when they eliminated the Maple Leafs and fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. After a few years of stockpiling talented prospects including the likes of Cole Sillinger, Kent Johnson, and David Jiricek, the Jackets are ready to take the next step, and Carlsson might be the perfect cherry on top in the team’s transition from rebuilding team to bubble playoff team.
While Carlsson might not be ready to go for game one of the 2023-24 season, he’ll likely be in the NHL sooner rather than later. He registered 25 points in 44 games for Orebro HK of the SHL, an impressive pace considering he was playing against grown men, and his hockey IQ is big-league ready. He would round out a very strong crop of young talent who will surely be looking to stay out of the draft lottery sweepstakes next season, and whether he makes the NHL next year or not, it won’t be long before he’s part of one of those groups, whether it’s with the Jackets or another team.
4. San Jose Sharks – Matvei Michkov (RW, SKA St. Petersburg, KHL, 5-foot-10, 172 pounds)
Of all the picks I’m going to lay out over the next days I’m by far least confident in where I believe Michkov will end up. If it wasn’t for a number of factors, including his Kirill Kaprizov-esque contract in the KHL (he’s signed with SKA St. Petersburg until 2026) and difficulty for teams when it comes to meeting him or learning anything about him, he would be far and away the second overall pick behind Bedard. Dare I say, he might even challenge him for the top pick.
That said, the amount of uncertainty around him will likely cause his draft stock to tank. How far it will fall is unknown, as it really comes down to which teams are looking to take the risk for a prospect who could reap some intense rewards. Michkov is already almost a point-per-game in the KHL, which is stunning for an 18 year-old, recording 20 points in 27 games for HK Sochi, and possesses essentially everything you would want in a high-octane offensive winger.
The Sharks have the circumstance of being a lottery team without much of a prospect pool, so if I’m general manager Mike Grier, who was just hired as general manager of the Sharks last summer, I’d be taking a big swing. The Sharks have nothing to lose and likely won’t be on the cusp of contention for another few years, so it’s a good opportunity for them to add arguably a top-two most dynamic player in the draft. That said, Michkov could go second overall or he could slip out of the top ten. It’s just nearly impossible to say at this point.
5. Montreal Canadiens – Will Smith (C, USNTDP, USHL, 6-foot-0, 172 pounds)
Even if the Habs were to miss out on Bedard, Fantilli, Carlsson, and Michkov, the fact that they would hypothetically have the chance to select a player like Will Smith at fifth overall says a lot about how deep this draft is. The Lexington, Massachusetts native put up video game numbers with the U.S. National Team Development Program this year, scoring 51 goals and adding 127 points over 60 games with the U18 team, along with 42 points in 20 games for the USNTDP Juniors.
The reality is, if the Blue Jackets draft Carlsson, Smith will be the next to go. And if the Blue Jackets draft Smith, Carlsson will be the next to go. And somewhere in between all of this lies Michkov. If the draft plays out the way I think it will, I can’t see the Canadiens passing up on the opportunity to take Smith. He has number one centre potential to round out a young and promising core of forwards including Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Juraj Slafkovsky.
6. Arizona Coyotes – Zach Benson (LW, Winnipeg Ice, WHL, 5-foot-10, 163 pounds)
You’re going to see a lot of mock drafts shaping together the same way early on, and in this case, the match between Benson and the Coyotes is perfect. He’s the linemate of Conor Geekie, who was drafted 11th overall by Arizona last season, and this is the same team that hasn’t drafted a left-wing in the first round since Brendan Perlini in 2014.
With a very promising crop of centres for the future that include the likes of Geekie and third overall pick Logan Cooley, and a likely right winger for the future in Dylan Guenther, the fit with Benson is perfect. While he lacks size, he’s a tenacious forward with a good shot and good playmaking abilities. He’ll compliment Geekie and his fellow forward prospects nicely down the road assuming all goes according to plan with his development.
7. Philadelphia Flyers – David Reinbacher (D, EHC Kloten, Swiss League A, 6-foot-2, 187 pounds)
It’s not too often I’d say a team like the Flyers should draft for a need rather than going with the best player available, but they’re in such need of a stable defensive prospect that it might surpass the logic of walking away with sheer talent instead. Lucky for them, Reinbacher is about as solid as it gets on the back end, and while he might not be the seventh most talented or skilled prospect in the draft, he’s a guy you can still justify taking in that position.
The Hohenems, Austria native would be the highest drafted player native to that country since Thomas Vanek, and would join Minnesota Wild prospect Marco Rossi as another one of the young studs to hail from there drafted in recent memory. Reinbacher is a solid stay at home defenseman who provided some offense from the back end last season, with 22 points in 46 games. He’d be a bit of a project, but one that would likely be well worth the wait for the Flyers.
8. Washington Capitals – Ryan Leonard (C, USNTDP, USHL, 5-foot-11, 181 pounds)
The Capitals managed to grab left winger Ivan Miroshnichenko in 2022, who was a top ten talent before his Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis, and went heavy on the defense the year before, so I have them pivoting to a centre here. And believe me, Leonard is more than just a “centre”. Like many of his fellow top 10 probables, he put up some video game numbers in 2022-23, scoring 51 goals and adding 43 assists for 94 points in 57 games with the USNTDP U18 team.
The Amherst, Massachusetts native is committed to Boston College for next season, so it will be at least a year before he would join the team, but he would be worth the wait. Not only does he have some elite goal scoring ability (which Washington loves, as we all know), he can play any of the three forward positions and has the ability to knock opponents off the puck despite not being the biggest of players. He would be a strong addition to the next wave of young Capitals forwards to succeed the era of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
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