NHL Draft Rankings: Horn’s Top 32 for December

With the 2022-23 hockey season well underway, I thought it was high time I released my first draft rankings for the 2023 NHL Draft. There has already been a great deal of movement when it comes to some of the top prospects as their seasons have begun and that won’t stop until the draft begins. Some players have dropped out of the first round after being near consensus top-10 picks just a few months ago, and some of the prospects I have ranked here will be brand new names to some of you.

2023 NHL Draft Horn'’s Rankings Connor Bedard Adam Fantilli Matvei Michkov
Connor Bedard Adam Fantilli Matvei Michkov (The Hockey Writers)

Much has been made about the strength of the first round in the 2023 Draft class, and for good reason. I believe that Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli, and Matvei Michkov would all have been the consensus first overall pick in each of the last three NHL Drafts, with Leo Carlsson being in the top-two conversation in each of those years. The top-five isn’t the only place with some incredible talent though, as there are players spread throughout the entire first round of my rankings here that have immense talent and potential.

Another topic that has come up a lot in this draft cycle is the lack of a clear top defender. The last time that the top five selections in the draft contained zero defensemen was 2003, 20 years ago exactly. Ryan Suter was the first defender selected in the famed 2003 Draft, and he was selected seventh overall.

Related: Early Look at the 2024 NHL Draft

Now, that doesn’t just testify to the lack of defensive depth in this draft, but also the desperation of NHL teams that leads to them reaching on a defenseman with a high pick. I would be shocked if a defenseman was picked in the top five this year, and the only way it could be justified is if the player has emerged as a top prospect later this year and you take him with the fifth overall pick because taking him over any member of the established top-four forward group is still absurd in my mind.

This is just the first edition of this list, and I will be releasing several more updates throughout the season which will gradually include more players. Each player will be accompanied by a little tag detailing their defining attribute to help give you a sense for what makes them special. I know you’re just full of anticipation regarding who I have ranked first overall, so I’ll get into it. Here is my first top 32 rankings for the 2023 NHL Draft. 

1. Connor Bedard, C, Regina Pats (WHL)

Defining Attribute: Elite Goalscorer

Surprise! Bet you didn’t see this one coming. Ever since he became the first player to ever earn Exceptional Status in the Western Hockey League (WHL), the eyes of the entire hockey world have been on Bedard, and he has rewarded that attention with an incredible WHL career on a sub-par Regina Pats team. It’s difficult to even decide what to say about him so I think you should just watch this goal he scored recently against the Winnipeg Ice.

Bedard has the best shot in the entire draft class, and he didn’t even need to use it on that goal, instead opting to slash through the opposing defenders with his elite stickhandling and uncanny ability to manipulate defenders sticks and skates with fakes. He is averaging more than two points per game in the WHL so far despite the team around being below average. Bedard looks like he’ll be a franchise-defining player in the NHL who can make a legitimate impact for the team that drafts him as soon as next season. 

2. Matvei Michkov, RW, SKA-Neva St. Petersburg (VHL)

Defining Attribute: Brilliant Offensive IQ 

Matvei Michkov might just be the smartest player in this draft class, with an incredible ability to manipulate opposing defenses. He has a great shot, but more often than not he scores goals because he slipped his defender and managed to find the space and time necessary to score a goal. While Bedard scores by trying to shoot a wrister as hard as possible, trying to punch a hole through the goalie, Michkov will outsmart the defense and score by finding holes in coverage.

The next player on this list has certainly made up some ground, but Michkov is no slouch and I believe he could be in the conversation for first overall if he weren’t playing in Russia and didn’t have a contract that will keep him playing in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for three full seasons following the draft. He is a special player and looks like he will become a franchise-defining player for whoever selects him, when he finally makes it to North America that is.

3. Adam Fantilli, C, University of Michigan (NCAA)

Defining Attribute: Excellent Skating/Pace

Adam Fantilli is an absolute monster with the puck, with the skill, skating, and strength to beat defenders no matter how they attack him. Good luck taking the puck away from him because he can easily move around you with his excellent skating or truck through you with his solid 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame. 

Adam Fantilli Michigan Wolverines
Adam Fantilli, Michigan Wolverines (Michigan Photography)

Fantilli is currently authoring one of the most impressive draft eligible NCAA seasons in recent memory with the only competition being Jack Eichel’s dominant 2014-15 season where he put up 71 points in 40 games. Fantilli is currently averaging just a bit under two points per game on a University of Michigan team filled to the brim with talent. If he can keep up that pace and impress the world with his play at the upcoming 2023 World Junior Championships, Fantilli could make a serious case for a top two pick in my mind.

4. Leo Carlsson, C/LW, Örebro HK (SHL)

Defining Attribute: Puck Protection and Effort Level

With a hot start in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) as a 17-year-old Leo Carlsson has shot up draft boards and quickly made the top tier of the draft a four-player group. The SHL demands a lot of players when it comes to physicality and defensive effort, both of which Carlsson has excelled at. He hasn’t looked out of place against men and has scored points at an excellent rate so far for a draft eligible player.

His skill and power combination make him a nightmare for defenders as he can beat you with his hands or by tossing his large frame into you to protect the puck. Carlsson’s ability to find and make space off the puck is also impressive for such a young player playing against grown men. He has the potential to make a real impact in the NHL as soon as next year considering his success on both ends of the ice in Sweden thus far. 

5. Will Smith, C, USA U-18 (USDP)

Defining Attribute: High-end Playmaking (at any speed)

Will Smith is another player who has risen in my eyes lately with his continued dominance as a member of the United States National Team Development Program where he is scoring just under two points per game. The only player to ever score at a rate of two points per game on the U18 team for a full season is Jack Hughes, you might have heard of him.

Smith is an incredibly shifty playmaker who can create high danger plays at will by threading passes through traffic, stickhandling around pressure, or taking a shot of his own. He is a very intelligent offensive player and can make these great reads and plays at full speed. Smith is quickly turning the top-four of this draft into a top-five. 

6. Dalibor Dvorsky, C, AIK (Allsvenskan)

Defining Attribute: Great Vision (sees everything in the offensive zone)

Dalibor Dvorsky is another player who has been impressive this season against men, playing in HockeyAllsvenskan, the second-tier Swedish professional league, for most of this season. He’s scoring roughly half a point per game there and has spent a few games in the J20 Nationell as well, Sweden’s top junior league, where he has shown that he is clearly a step above his age group, scoring nearly two points per game there.

Dvorsky has shown solid defensive play so far against men and his vision and puck skills have looked right at home, especially on the power play. His play in transition leaves something to be desired, but once he’s in the offensive zone his ability to maintain control of the puck and make smart passes at an efficient rate makes him a consistent threat. 

7. Zach Benson, LW, Winnipeg Ice (WHL)

Defining Attribute: Awesome Puck Skills and Creativity

Zach Benson is one of the most skilled and creative players in this draft, and the only things holding him back from being a true top-five contender is his size and his underwhelming speed. I’m not too worried about his size (5-foot-9, 160 pounds) because he has the tenacity and elusiveness that smaller players need to have to make a difference at the NHL level these days.

Related: Baracchini’s Top 32 for the 2023 NHL Draft

Benson is currently outscoring two of his teammates in Matthew Savoie and Conor Geekie who were both drafted in the top-11 of the 2022 Draft. He’s also outscoring most of the WHL for that matter, dominating the opposition when he has possession. He shows off his edgework and hands best while playing through traffic as he just seems to be nearly impossible to nail down and knock off the puck. If he can add another gear (or two) to his max speed, Benson would be an absolute force in transition. 

8. Brayden Yager, C, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)

Defining Attribute: Offensive Positioning and Great Shot

Brayden Yager has been talked about in the public scouting sphere for nearly as long as Connor Bedard, being drafted third overall in the 2020 WHL Bantam Draft and winning the CHL Rookie of the Year award last year on the back of a remarkable 34-goal, 59-point rookie season. His transition play and wicked shot make him the most important player on his team on many nights.

His playmaking vision is solid but will likely never be his calling card. He works hard when he’s on the ice, making high effort plays without the puck that give me more confidence that he will continue to play as a center in the NHL. He has a great release on his shot, and he has a knack for manipulating shooting lanes or goalie positioning in just a split second to give himself a better scoring chance.

9. Eduard Sale, RW/LW, HC Kometa Brno (Czechia)

Defining Attribute: Jack of All Trades

Eduard Sale is a great offensive winger who currently leads all U20 players in scoring as a 17-year-old in the top Czechian professional league. He hasn’t looked out of place against men and looks very comfortable dictating play from the flanks at even strength and on the power play.

He’s a classic example of a jack of all trades, master of none, with solid scores across the board when it comes to defensive play, playmaking, skating and shooting, with none of those individual skills popping of the page at you. He looks like he could be a hard-working top-six winger who complements your top guys really well while providing real offensive value on his own. 

10. Matthew Wood, RW, University of Connecticut (NCAA)

Defining Attribute: Excellent Shot and Hands for his Size

I was eager to see how Matthew Wood would adjust to the college game after dominated the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) where he led the league in goals and points as a 16-year-old. Early results are extremely positive with Wood being one of the top rookie point scorers and one of the top scorers on his team despite being the youngest player in all of men’s NCAA hockey.

Wood is 6-foot-3 so his ability to make plays in tight to his skates at speed while maintaining control is very impressive for his size. However, his real calling card is his shot which ranks near the top of the draft class in terms of deception and power. He could use a bit more speed (but who couldn’t?), but he has shown that his timing and puck protection skills are strong enough for him to succeed in college. Only time will tell if they can do the same for him as a pro. 

11. Ryan Leonard, RW, USA U-18 (NTDP)

Defining Attribute: Skill Plays at High Speed

Ryan Leonard is a high energy winger who never takes his foot of the gas in terms of both speed and effort. He uses his speed and skill to blow by defenders in the neutral zone and pressure in-zone defenders who struggle to anticipate his next move. His playmaking and shot aren’t exceptional, but they’re both good enough to be reasonably sure that his offense would translate to the NHL some day.

12. Andrew Cristall, LW, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)

Defining Attribute: High Skill and Creativity

One of the most skilled and slippery players in this draft is Andrew Cristall, the only draft eligible player in the WHL who has been able to roughly keep pace with Bedard in terms of production this year. Holding steady at about two points per game, Cristall has already shown improvements following his impressive 69-point WHL rookie season last year. He draws tons of attention in the offensive zone and is great at making smart plays under pressure to help open teammates up to make their jobs easier.

The biggest arguments against him are his size and skating, since a 5-foot-10 winger often needs to be an above average skater to make an impact in the NHL and Cristall is not quite there. At this point I think his offensive abilities will at least make him a power play threat even if his skating never catches up.

13. David Reinbacher, RD, Kloten (National League)

Defining Attribute: Great Defensive Game and Above Average Skating

I believe Austrian defender David Reinbacher is the best defenseman in the 2023 Draft class right now and an argument could be made that he could be ranked as high as the top-10. Reinbacher is a 6-foot-2 defender with a right-handed shot and great mobility who is playing lots of minutes in the National League (NL), Switzerland’s top professional men’s league. He’s a very responsible defender who shuts down tons of rush attempts with an active stick and stellar positioning.

Related: Little’s Early Top 16 for the 2023 NHL Draft

The biggest question following Reinbacher’s great performance last year in the Swiss League (SL), the second-tier Swiss professional league, was if he had more offense in his game to show. So far, his offense has only improved, even considering the increased competition. He profiles similarly to David Jiricek physically, but with a more defensive tilt to his game. Reinbacher is looking like a potential top-four mainstay in the NHL with exciting defensive potential.  Watch for him to rise on many public draft boards following the 2023 World Junior Championship where he will be one of the most important players for Team Austria.

14. Mikhail Gulyayev, LD, Omsk (Russia)

Defining Attribute: Great Skating Power Play QB

Mikhail Gulyayev is an intelligent offensively minded defenseman who has found moderate success in the top Russian pro leagues this year while dominating the Russian junior circuit whenever he plays against his peers. He is a mobile defenseman who fits the mold of the modern puck-moving defender and power play quarterback.

In the 2021-22 season, Gulyayev set a new MHL (the top Russian junior league) record for points by a 16-year-old defenseman with 35 points in 54 games. He could suffer from the Russian factor, but the lack of top-end defensive prospects and his impressive offensive toolset leads me to believe he’s got a good shot at being drafted in the top-20. 

15. Riley Heidt, C, Prince George Cougars (WHL)

Defining Attribute: Strong Skating and Playmaking

Riley Heidt’s excellent acceleration and edge work make him a natural choice as the lead puck carrier for zone entries and he has excelled in that role. His playmaking skills either at full speed or after settling in the offensive zone are impressive and make him a very mobile and skilled threat whenever he has the puck. Good habits away from the puck lead me to believe he will be a reliable NHLer with top-six forward upside.

16. Colby Barlow, LW, Owen Sound Attack (OHL)

Defining Attribute: Good Shot and Penalty Killing

After scoring 30 goals as a rookie in the OHL last season, Colby Barlow has been on my radar as a pro-sized winger with a legit NHL-caliber shot. He’s got good tools all around with solid speed, stick skills, and defensive play. Barlow was also named Captain of his team at just 17 which speaks to his maturity and leadership abilities. He has been off to a hot start this season, averaging just under a goal per game.

Barlow’s size, strength, and maturity as a teenager lead me to believe he could have a real shot at making the NHL out of training camp for whichever team selects him, he’s that talented and reliable.

17. Koehn Ziemmer, RW, Prince George Cougars (WHL)

Defining Attribute: Great Hands and Pro Frame

Koehn Ziemmer is another pro-built winger who loves to shoot the puck hard whenever given the chance. His skating is a bit of a weakness with less-than-ideal speed, but he more than makes up for it with his offensive creativity and hands. He loves attacking defenders and beating them in one-on-one skill battles. Ziemmer often seems to have the puck on a string and that’s part of why he has been one of the leading scorers in the WHL this year as a 17-year-old. 

18. Nate Danielson, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)

Defining Attribute: Consistent and Well-Rounded Play Driver

Few centers in junior hockey enter their draft year as well-rounded as Nate Danielson. His consistency, effort, speed, and skill make him a coach’s dream even though he doesn’t have the dynamic offensive qualities of some of his peers. Danielson is great at attacking the middle of the ice which makes up for his lack of a finishing touch because it leads to a plethora of chances that good line mates could finish at a solid clip. He doesn’t profile as a player who will fill the net at the pro level, but he will be a great complementary piece with a responsible defensive game.

19. Gabriel Perrault, RW, USA U-18 (NTDP)

Defining Attribute: Power Play Specialist

Gabriel Perrault looks like someone who could be a power play specialist at the next level with great skill and smarts in the offensive zone. He can pick apart opposing defenses with pin-point passes and sly fakes, and his effort level is admirable. The real question will be if he can make a difference in his own end as his defending has been a bit too relaxed for my liking.

20. Axel Sandin Pellikka, RD, Skelleftea AIK (Sweden)

Defining Attribute: Strong IQ and Puck Moving Skill

Axel Sandin-Pellikka is a right-handed offensive defenseman who has put up points at a remarkable rate in J20 Nationell, the top Swedish junior league. At the time of writing, he leads all defenseman in points per game and is on pace to have one of the most impressive offensive seasons in league history amongst defensemen of any age, not just draft eligible ones. If he doesn’t reach that mark, it will likely be because he has spent much of his time with Skelleftea’s SHL side, earning three points in 11 professional games at the time of writing.

21. Calum Ritchie, C, Oshawa Generals (OHL)

Defining Attribute: Puck Skills and Legit Center

Calum Ritchie has great puck skills and sometimes it looks like he has glued the puck to his stick while carving through defenders or when he’s on a breakaway. His skills make him very well suited as a center at the next level with good size, a coveted right-handed shot, good defensive habits (kills penalties quite well), and solid faceoff results. He has the tools to be a top-16 player in the draft easily, but I want to see some more production from him in the OHL before I increase his ranking that much.

22. Quentin Musty, LW, Sudbury Wolves (OHL)

Defining Attribute: Great Shot and Net Driving 

After a solid showing at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup last summer, Quentin Musty was considered by many to be the best U.S. born prospect in this draft class. A slow start to the OHL season saw his draft stock swing way down, but his production has leveled up significantly of late, and he’s beginning to rise again.

Musty is an athletic winger who can beat goalies with his hard shot or by crashing the net and scoring in tight. He is on the younger side of the draft class with a July birthday so he has plenty of time to grow into the potential that he has shown thus far and increase his draft stock.

23. Samuel Honzek, LW, Vancouver Giants (WHL)

Defining Attribute: Good Skating and Compete Level

After being selected 10th overall in the 2022 CHL Import Draft by the Vancouver Giants, Samuel Honzek has done nothing but impress in his first season in North America. He currently leads the Giants in scoring and is among the top scorers in the WHL at large. Honzek has played and succeeded on both special teams this year and his size and strength have made him too much for opposing defenders to handle on more than a few occasions.

24. Lukas Dragicevic, RD, Tri-City Americans (WHL)

Defining Attribute: Great Transition Offense

One of the most surprising junior players so far this year is Lukas Dragicevic who has put up points at well above a point per game rate in the WHL from the back end, making him the highest scoring defender in the league as of writing. He provides a ton of offense in transition as well as in the offensive zone where he seems to create scoring chances at will. His skating as average in my eyes and so is his defending, but his offensive skill and smarts package could get him a look even higher on draft day. 

25. Hunter Brzustewicz, RD, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)

Defining Attribute: Simple but Effective Game in all Three Zones 

Hunter Brzustewicz made the right call when he de-committed to the University of Michigan so that he could play in the OHL this year. He didn’t get the opportunities that he needed last year with the U.S. U18 team and he likely would have faced a similar situation behind Michigan defenders like Luke Hughes and Seamus Casey.

Related: Forbes’ Early Top 16 for the 2023 NHL Draft

In the OHL Brzustewicz has been able to be the top-dog on defense for the Kitchener Rangers and has shown more offensive potential than many thought he possessed. He is smart and confident in most situations which typically leads to him making the right play. There’s a chance he could contribute to an NHL power play (almost certainly on the second unit), but he has a real chance to be a dependable two-way guy in the NHL. 

26. Gavin Brindley, C/RW, University of Michigan (NCAA) 

Defining Attribute: Great Skating and Effort Level

During every draft cycle there are a handful of prospects who are 5-foot-10 or shorter who get a ton of praise in public scouting circles before unceremoniously sliding on draft day. There have been Lane Hutson (2022 Draft), Olen Zellweger (2021 Draft), Logan Stankoven (2020 Draft), and Cole Caufield (2019 Draft), to name a few. My best guess at a player who has great skill but might slide on draft day due to his height is Gavin Brindley.

Brindley is a 5-foot-9 forward who has been quite good in the NCAA as an 18-year-old, a very impressive feat. His skating is excellent, and his high energy level makes him a possession monster. His combination of speed and effort will make him a very flexible player who can fill in whatever role is needed of him, which has earned him the second-line center spot for a stacked University of Michigan team.

27. Oliver Moore, C/LW, USA U-18 (NTDP)

Defining Attribute: Incredible Skater

Oliver Moore is one of the best skaters in this draft class with blazing speed and solid agility. The combination of his skating, shot, and playmaking skills makes him a true offensive weapon. He is agile enough that I expect he’ll be very successful on zone entries in the NHL some day, giving his team a chance to control play in the offensive zone whenever he touches the puck. He has produced solid offense so far this year for the US U-18 team which is made more impressive by the fact that he is usually playing on the second line behind the Smith, Moore, Perreault trio. 

28. Noah Dower Nilsson, C, Frölunda HC (J20 Nationell)

Defining Attribute: High End Skill

Noah Dower Nilsson is purely an offensive player at this point, but he’s a very skilled one. He has been dominating the Swedish J20 league this year and is scoring at a higher pace right now than both Jonathan Lekkerimaki and Noah Ostlund did last year (who were drafted 15th and 16th respectively in the 2022 NHL Draft). Dower Nilsson doesn’t have Lekkerimaki’s shot or Ostlund’s passing ability, but his offensive IQ is terrific and he has shown the ability to produce at an incredible pace without any other high-end scorers around him to help him pick up a few points here and there.

29. Otto Stenberg, C, Frölunda HC (J20 Nationell)

Defining Attribute: Great Transition Offense

Before the season began, many people saw Otto Stenberg as a top-10 prospect for this draft following his incredible performance for Team Sweden at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. His production has been disappointing so far this year, but his talent as a high-skill puck carrier is still clear.

The way he dodges checks and evades pressure is impressive, but the way he attacks the middle of the ice is what I like most about him. Stenberg is never the biggest guy on the ice, but he’ll drop a shoulder and push his way to the dangerous areas of the ice without hesitation. If he starts to put up more points, watch out for Stenberg as he’ll rise up many draft boards (including mine) very quickly.

30. Caden Price, LD, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)

Defining Attribute: Great Vision and Playmaking

Caden Price is a solid two-way defender who has been impressive in the WHL this year considering how much has been asked of him and the fact that he won’t turn 18 until next August. He is good with the puck when transitioning out of the defensive zone, and his confidence under pressure allows him to make the best available play while limiting the mistakes that are common amongst junior-aged defensemen. Price’s game is centered on his skating which allows him to be one of the most impactful players on his team whether he’s making pinpoint passes along the blue line or defending the rush.

31. Ethan Gauthier, RW, Sherbrooke Phoenix (QMJHL)

Defining Attribute: Great Consistency and High Motor

Ethan Gauthier is one of the most consistent players in this draft class in terms of effort and habits, not just production. He’s a hard worker who makes his team better whenever he steps on the ice. He doesn’t have any one skill that really pops out at you, but I find that he’s good at pretty much everything. Gauthier has cooled off following an incredibly hot start to the QMJHL season production-wise, but his smart and reliable habits have not changed. I watch him and I see an NHL player with the kind of well-rounded, high-effort skill set that could see him move around an NHL lineup (in a good way) someday.

32. Charlie Stramel, C, University of Wisconsin (NCAA) 

Defining Attribute: Physicality and Solid Wrister

Charlie Stramel is one of the more polarizing prospects in this year’s draft, as a power forward center who plays a very physical game and hasn’t put up many points in the NCAA so far. He’s the rare prospect over 6-foot-2 who is actually a power forward, as he always has his mind set on driving through the middle of the ice, bowling his way through defenders on his way to the net. Stramel has good hands for someone his size to go with a heavy wrist shot. The questions around his game mainly surround his offensive upside and IQ. His decision making is a touch slow and a bit unreliable in terms of quality, but his size, skating, and puck skills make him a very enticing project, and we know how much NHL general managers like all players.

Honourable Mentions:

Michael Hrabal, Alex Ciernik, Scott Ratzlaff, Beau Akey, Luca Pinelli, Ondrej Molnar, Jesse Nurmi, Theo Lindstein, Daniil But, Carson Bjarnason, Zeb Forsfjall, Noel Nordh,