2023 NHL Draft Rankings: Forbes’ Early Top 16

When one door closes, another one will open. That’s how the saying goes isn’t it? Well, the door has closed on the 2022 NHL Draft and while it’s taken about a month to get started on the 2023 NHL Draft talk, the early rankings are in and there’s some discussion to be had.

This year’s class is proving to be highly-touted and offensively skilled. While conversations surrounded two players in particular from the 2023 class over the past couple of seasons, the tag of generational talent might even sit with three players heading this year’s draft.

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

That said, there are a number of players that will be looking to prove their worth and climb the ranks over the next 12 months and it begins with the 2022 Hlinka Gretzky Cup that just finished up. With some of the players having already stepped up at the tournament, this could prove to be one of the deeper draft classes in a long time. With that said, their tournament play wasn’t taken into consideration for these particular rankings.

Related: 2023 NHL Draft Rankings – Baracchini’s Way Too Early Top 15

Yes, it’s early. But what better time to start the conversation around this year’s top prospects and work our way through the top-16 players for the 2023 NHL Draft. That’s right, 16 players, as we take a closer look at half of the first round in this way-too-early dive into this year’s class.

Without further adieu, here are my top-16 players from the 2023 NHL Draft.

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

There may not have been a unanimous number one in 2022 as many had expected, but it’s safe to say — and I’ll say it this early — that Connor Bedard will be the number one pick in 2023. It’s safe to say he’s been making headlines for the past few years with his incredibly high talent and innate hockey IQ while his numbers speak for themselves.

In his rookie season with the Regina Pats of the WHL, in which he was granted exceptional status, Bedard had 12 goals and 28 points in 15 games during the COVID-shortened season. He played five games over in Sweden with the HV71 J18 and J20 teams in which he tallied three goals and six points in five games, but that was just the beginning for this generational talent.

Last season he made the WHL look like a cake walk. Donning an ‘A’ for the Pats, Bedard exploded offensively for 51 goals and 100 points. He captained Canada’s under-18 team with six goals and seven points in four games and is a sure-bet to step up his game for this summer’s World Juniors.

But his offence isn’t the only storyline around this kid. He’s considered to be an elite prospect for a number of reasons and his shiftiness on the ice, his speed and his ability to see the game in ways that his cohorts can’t are only a few of them. Bedard creates dangerous opportunities, it’s what sets him apart from others and while his size is still on the smaller side, we’ve seen how that doesn’t matter nearly as much as it once did at the NHL level — especially when a player has the kind of skill that Bedard possesses.

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

I know, let’s hear it. Yes, I’ve got Fantilli in the number two spot for now. He may not be the same elite scorer that Matvei Michkov is, but his game is certainly on the next level compared to the next level of prospects coming out of this class. That, along with the fact that he will be joining an already impressive Michigan program, and Fantilli will be an interesting option to watch over the next year.

In fact, Fantilli went from top program in the USHL — the Chicago Steel — to one of the major programs in the NCAA with Michigan so he’s clearly already a highly sought after young player. On top of that, if his successes with the Steel weren’t already telling of the player that he will be, wait and see what he does over the next season.

Adam Fantilli Chicago Steel
Adam Fantilli, Chicago Steel (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

In 2021-22, he was a member of the Clark Cup winning Steel team and took home playoff MVP honours in the process.

He has the size and skill to be a force down the middle and, like Bedard, sees the game in a way that not many do. His speed backs up opponents and forces them to make plays inside the defensive zone, but his ability to drive the play and tempo opens up the ice for his line mates. Fantilli is extremely effective in attacking the puck and plays a possession game that allows him to control the play.

3. Matvei Michkov, RW, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)

He’s number two for some, but I have him just one spot shy as the third selection. Sure, that can change as the season progresses, but for now Michkov is outside my top two.

He’s an elite goal scorer and will be considered by many as a generational talent alongside Bedard, but his contract in Russia runs through to 2025-26 and you have to wonder if that’s taken into account.

Still, he has the vision of a phenom. He has the scoring ability of very few players. He could be the best goal-scoring Russian since Alex Ovechkin came onto the scene and he plays with an elusiveness that allows him to get around the ice almost unscathed. Like the two I have ahead of him, Michkov is so quick and that speed allows him to open up the game for those around him.

What make him even more dangerous is his shooting. He’s accurate and finds holes that are so small around the net that he’s earned the title of being a phenom to this point. We won’t focus on size, because his hands and vision make him a threat wherever he might be on the ice and the physicality of the game he manages to stay away from for the most part.

Could he realistically find his way into being one of the top two picks? Absolutely. It could come down to draft order and needs for that respective franchise when it’s all said and done.

4. Dalibor Dvorsky, C, AIK (HockeyAllsvenskan)

Another Slovak looking to make noise in this year’s draft following Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemec in 2022, Dvorsky stepped onto the scene in a big way during the 2021 Hlinka Gretzky Cup with 12 points in five games.

He went on to put up 20 goals and 40 points in 33 games with the AIK J20 team, adding another three points in 17 games with the big club — AIK in the HockeyAllsvenskan. While his offensive production wasn’t as high at the next level, it was a small sample size and he really didn’t look too out of place.

While he’s a smart player and sees the game well, there are a few aspects of his game that need development — including speed, his acceleration off the first step and his shot. He’s more of a playmaker at this point, but that can change with work and coaching.

He isn’t getting a chance to defend his performance from last year’s Hlinka Gretzky Cup this time around, but you can almost rest assured that he will suit up for Slovakia at the August rendition of the U20 World Junior Championship.

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

He was the WHL’s and CHL’s rookie of the year last season and is now sporting an ‘A’ for Canada at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. But there are some that are still not buying into Brayden Yager’s game. That said, he’s rounding out my top five and for good reason.

There’s no doubt that he’s a goal scorer. He has a quick release that catches opposing goaltenders off guard and it showed in his 2021-22 campaign, tallying 34 goals and 59 points in 63 regular season games for the Moose Jaw Warriors.

While it would be nice for him to put on a few pounds and add some strength, Yager does use his big frame as a six-footer to protect the puck and make tough plays. He has power behind his shot and finds the dangerous areas in the offensive zone to get off that release. Behind Michkov and Bedard, Yager could be the next purest goal scorer in this class.

6. Zach Benson, C, Winnipeg ICE (WHL)

Let’s talk about Zach Benson for a second. I know this sounds crazy to say, but he was seventh on the Winnipeg ICE last season in points with 63 points in 58 regular season games. He was even better come playoff time, when he led the ICE with 23 points in 15 games. Still, I don’t think he’s getting the respect he deserves.

For Benson, it’s the intangibles that make him so good. His positioning is next to perfect and he sees the game so well. In fact, what makes him such an interesting prospect is the way that he’s able to read the play and how it’s likely going to develop before stepping in and influencing its outcome.

He’s clearly an asset offensively as well and he’s so quick to the puck that he can create in some difficult situations. He might not be the top player in this class, but it’s no fault of his own. He could be a guy that could push his way into the top-five very quickly.

7. Charlie Stramel, F, University of Wisconsin (NCAA)

Stramel missed a major part of last season due to injury, but remains one of the bigger players in the top-10 for this year’s draft. That size and physicality makes him a legitimate power forward with top-end hockey IQ. On top of that, he sees the ice so well and that allows him to make top-tier passes from anywhere on the ice.

He’s the perfect candidate to play on a top power play unit at some point as he could be a net-front presence with the hands to make him a dangerous threat from the outside walls as well. This year’s NCAA season could be a coming out party for Stramel if he can avoid injury from start to finish.

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

He had one heck of a rookie season in the OHL with the Oshawa Generals in 2021-22, putting up 19 goals and 45 points in 65 games. He finished 16th in rookie scoring and fifth on the Generals in scoring through the regular season.

Calum Ritchie Oshawa Generals
Calum Ritchie, Oshawa Generals (Josh Kim / The Hockey Writers)

As for what Ritchie brings, he’s a possession player that likes to drive the play in the offensive zone. He can weave in tight areas or make tough passes in dangerous situations. He’s aware while driving up the ice and that allows him to see the play unfolding and make plays accordingly.

Ritchie can be a net-front presence as he does have the skill and size, but he’s a player that would much prefer to make the plays than to finish them.

9. Kasper Halttunen, F, HIFK (U20 SM-sarja)

He’s been an international presence for Finland over the past year, but his numbers really showed up with Jokerit U20 last season with 24 goals and 38 points in 41 games, almost averaging a point per game.

Halttunen is a big frame and he doesn’t shy away from the physicality. He skates well and has high-end skill in that he can get around opponents when the opportunity presents itself. His shot is heavy and he plays aggressively giving him room to move around. On paper he has all the skill to be a force at the NHL level, but it might take a trip to London to play for the Knights’ organization that drafted him for us to really see how it translates to the North America.

10. Leo Carlsson, C, Örebro HK (SHL)

It’s safe to say he dominated at the J20 Nationell level and earned his spot in the SHL last season. He skates so well and his ability to stick handle through defenders allows him to play a slightly risker game. Add to that his size — at six-foot-three — and his presence on the ice is usually felt. He’s patient with the puck and while he won’t have the best shot in the class, he still manages to get it done and put the puck in the net. If he can fill out and still play to that level offensively, Carlsson could be a scary options within the top-10.

11. Cameron Allen, RHD, Guelph Storm (OHL)

From what’s going around, Allen is a full package defenceman and his 37 points in 65 regular season games with Guelph in his rookie season should be pretty telling of what this undersized defenceman can do. He’s just shy of six feet, but that doesn’t stop him from being a force on the back end stopping opponents by having an active stick and getting right in front of them without giving them room to work.

He has a hard slap shot that can get through from the back end and should be considered as one of the top — if not the top — defensive prospect this season, especially after being named Team Canada’s captain at the Hlinka Gretzky tournament this season.

12. Nate Danielson, C, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)

Another center over the six-foot mark in the early going of the first round, Danielson is a sizeable middle man with silky mitts. His first full season in the WHL with the Wheat Kings proved to be a good one, scoring 23 goals and 57 points in just 53 games. Even after a worrisome injury in March, Danielson returned and continued his offensive explosion.

He’s a player that can make the perfect passes in tight areas and uses his speed to get around opposing defensemen. While he comes in as one of the more underrated top prospects in this draft, he has a deceptive release that makes him a dangerous player from any area in the offensive zone. Don’t count him out as a possible top-10 if he can improve on last year’s results.

13. Colby Barlow, RW, Owen Sound Attack (OHL)

A good sized winger, Barlow is quick and able to make high-end plays at top speed. For him that’s something considering how well he skates and how quick he is off the first step. His acceleration is top-notch and it allows him to beat opponents to the outside. He pushed the pace of play and when given the opportunities, he has smooth hands to finish as well. Barlow’s speed makes him a legitimate option on the penalty kill as he’s also responsible positionally in his own end.

14. Matthew Wood, F, Victoria Grizzlies (BCHL)

You want to talk about size down the middle? Look at Matthew Wood of the Victoria Grizzlies. He’s roughly six-foot-four and nearly 200 pounds, but what makes him such an interesting prospect is that he’s got a full bag of tools to go along with his size. Another year with the Grizzles in 2022-23 should prove well for Wood’s overall development, before he heads to the University of Connecticut in 2023-24.

He has a good shot and can pick his spots. He plays a positionally sound game and he’s an offensive threat in that he’d rather play with the puck and maintain possession than drive it into the corners. He’s a smart player and uses his teammates when he gets into a pinch in the offensive zone. Size and skill, Wood has enough to be a highly-sought after prospect in the upcoming draft.

15. Mikhail Gulyayev, LHD, Omskie Yastreby (MHL)

One of the few defensemen in this ranking, Gulyayev played 54 games for Omskie Yastreby last season during the regular season in which he tallied seven goals and 35 points. Of his 28 assists last season, 12 came at even strength with six of them being primary markers. That’s 42.8 percent of his assists coming at even strength for the year.

Related: Early Look at the 2024 NHL Draft

As for what he brings as a defenceman, he’s a player that likes to survey the play. His hockey IQ allows him to look up ice at the developing play before the breakout happens and he can turn the play right into offence. He can either move the puck up ice quickly by passing it out of his zone or skate it out with speed.

He’s smaller, but don’t let him be undervalued in what he can add to a blue line at a higher level.

16. Eduard Šalé, LW, HC Kometa Brno U20 (Czechia)

With the Brno U20 club last season, Šalé killed the opposition with 42 goals and 89 points in just 39 regular season games. He added another 10 points in five games in the playoffs and another three points in 10 games with the big club. Of those, 67 points came at even strength for just over 75 percent of his point totals last season.

Now, the expectation is that he will be with the big club this coming year with Brno. However, it is believed that if he doesn’t stick, we could see him make the jump to the OHL and the Barrie Colts who own his rights.

He controls the pace of play so well and he’s deceptive with the puck. He manipulates his positioning with the puck to give himself open lanes and opportunities in dangerous areas and when he can’t get the puck to the net, he finds a teammate and gives them chances as well. He’s got his head up and he sees the game so well. This allows him to cut when he needs to or stick to the outside and draw opponents in.

He will be a player that continues to climb this season regardless of whether he plays with Brno or Barrie.

Honourable Mentions: Riley Heidt (Prince George Cougars, WHL); Theo Lindstein (Brynas IF, SHL); Will Smith (USNTDP, U.S. Development Program); Daniil But (Loko Yaroslavl, MHL); Quentin Musty (Sudbury Wolves, OHL)

Final Thoughts

Remember, these rankings were set prior to the Hlinka Gretzky Cup which will surely change my mind on a number of prospects. This is the deepest draft we’ve seen for a long time and because of that we may not always agree, but my ears are open and I’m willing to listen. Be sure to share your thoughts on prospects in the comments over the next several months. Until next time, let me know who you think is missing in my top-16.

Statistics from Pick224 and Elite Prospects.