2023 NHL Draft Rankings: Little’s Early Top 16

2022 NHL Draft: check

2022 Hlinka Gretzky Cup: check

2022 World Junior Championship: check

And just like that, now the page turns to the 2023 draft. In case you haven’t heard, this draft class is stacked like the shelves at your local Target in the hours before Black Friday shopping begins.

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

But here we are in the last few days of August. Just as it’s too soon to be thinking about Black Friday shopping, it’s also too soon to be drawing meaningful conclusions about the 2023 draft class. Yes, there is a ton of talent in this class, but between now and June, there will be tons of players that grab the spotlight and others that fade into obscurity. The task of ranking these prospects is the task of determining which players have shown the most promise so far, and which ones fans should be keeping their eyes on as the 2022-23 season begins. That’s what we’re here to do today.

This is my first crack at ranking any draft class, and boy what a treat it is to be ranking this one. So without further ado, here are my (way too) early rankings of the top-16 players in the 2023 NHL Draft:

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

Forget “Bend it Like Beckham”, future hockey players will be trying to “Bend it Like Bedard” as they try to emulate the release on this kid’s shot. Seriously – this kid knows how to shoot the puck.

I’m not going to say anything here that hasn’t already been said. Connor Bedard is the most electrifying draft prospect we’ve seen since a kid named Connor McDavid was the talk of the town. Bedard has a release like Auston Matthews, a competitive nature like Sidney Crosby, and all the makings of a true generational talent. It will take a colossal letdown of a season, or a Herculean effort from another prospect to knock Bedard out of this spot. This kid is the real deal.

Potential: Generational Talent

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

I was and still am tempted to move Matvei Michkov down one spot in this ranking. Not only is there concern about his nationality and all the geo-political “stuff” that comes with it, but the player coming up at the third spot has a good case that he is the second-best prospect in this class. Still, Michkov’s sheer talent is undeniable; when looking at the top two prospects in this class, I think of the 2004 draft when Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were picks one and two. Both players became top-tier, Hart Trophy-winning talents, and I project the same for Bedard and Michkov.

Michkov possesses an insane level of offensive potential. He anticipates the play very well, and he can burn defenders on individual efforts just as easily as he can burn them with a slick pass to an open man. He’s a force of nature with the puck on his stick, and his future NHL team’s offense will undoubtedly flow through him at some point. The team that picks him next year really shouldn’t be that sour about missing out on Bedard because Michkov is the type of prospect teams always hope they’re getting when they hold one of the top three picks in the draft.

Potential: Elite-Level Talent

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

Adam Fantilli embodies most if not everything that teams look for in a top prospect. Size? He’s already 6-foot-3, 192 pounds. Skill? He possesses the ability to make and finish plays himself, and he’s one of those players that elevates the players around him. Important position? He’s a center. I think he would have been the top pick in the 2022 draft if he was eligible for it – that’s the kind of value we’re looking at with this player.

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

To make things even better, Fantilli will spend the 2022-23 season with the University of Michigan, a program that has made a name for itself in recent years for handling the development of several top prospects such as Owen Power (first overall, 2021), Matty Beniers (second overall, 2021), Quinn Hughes (seventh overall, 2018) and Luke Hughes (fourth overall, 2021). Fantilli will get to play with some of the best collegiate athletes in the sport and have a chance to make a run for a National Championship. That is an environment that is highly conducive to player development, and it honestly would not surprise me if he overtakes Michkov in the second spot by the end of this season.

Potential: Elite-Level Talent

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

Brayden Yager is on his way to becoming my favorite prospect in this draft class. He was quite impressive for Team Canada at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, scoring five goals and nine points through five games. He was also named the rookie of the year this past season in the Western Hockey League (WHL). He loves to shoot the puck, and he knows how to get into the dangerous areas of the ice to utilize his quick release. At just 17 years of age, he also has shown some leadership potential, sporting an ‘A’ on his sweater during that tournament.

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

What impresses me the most about Yager is the presence of a two-way game and his overall intelligence on the ice. He isn’t a shutdown guy by any means, but he already seems to understand the concept of strong defensive play leading to offense. In one smooth motion, he can close off an attacker, strip them of the puck, and then feed an open winger to spring the offense. I’m eager to see him this season in the WHL as I think he has the potential to be one of the best players to come out of this class.

Potential: Elite-Level Talent

5. Dalibor Dvorsky, C, AIK (HockeyAllsvenskan)

Dalibor Dvorsky is the type of player who is at his best when the puck is on his stick. His stick skills are top-notch, and he has the ability to make defenders miss, creating passing and shooting lanes for himself. His skating ability is going to be the big thing that determines whether or not he stays in the top-five as that is clearly the area he needs to work on the most.

But man, does this kid know what to do with the puck. He is patient, poised and precise when he has time and space, and his shot ensures that he’s as dangerous as a shooting option as he is when he’s passing the puck. He competes well, and I have reason to believe that he’ll continue to elevate his game in all areas. There’s a special player here, and it’s just a matter of how high he can raise his ceiling.

Potential: Elite-Level Talent

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

Last season on a team that included 2022 draftees Matthew Savoie (ninth overall) and Conor Geekie (11th overall), it was Zach Benson who stood out during the ICE’s playoff run, leading the team with 23 points in 15 games. His positional awareness is top-tier, and he’s a threat to make things happen every time the puck is on his stick. He’s competitive as can be, and he seems to shine brighter and brighter as the stage gets bigger and bigger.

Benson is the first player on this list that I’m choosing to be a bit conservative with. I think it is quite possible that he’s a top-five talent in this class, but I also can’t ignore the sheer amount of talent that was on last year’s ICE team. It’s easier to perform well when you’ve got a great supporting cast around you, and there’s no doubt that his play was elevated by his teammates and the matchup situations he faced because of them. Still, I think he is smart enough and skilled enough to replicate and even improve upon his efforts from last season. I’m very excited to see what 2022-23 has in store for this player.

Potential: Top-Line/Elite-Level Cusp

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

When Charlie Stramel stands out, he stands out in a big way. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, he already possesses the size that NHL scouts drool over. He has the makings of a power forward/playmaker combination down the middle, similar to what the Anaheim Ducks enjoyed for almost two decades in Ryan Getzlaf. That combination of size and skill will likely have him ranked in the top-32 of this draft for the foreseeable future. The only player that knock this player out of this spot in the rankings is himself.

Stramel uses his size to his advantage, making him hard to knock off the puck when he’s in motion. His offensive instincts are solid and he’s more than capable of playing alongside highly-skilled players (which is a skill in of itself). He has a slight tendency to fade into the background and maybe isn’t as “in your face” as you would like him to be. University of Wisconsin head coach Tony Granato should be an excellent resource for Stramel as he looks to take his game to the next level in the NCAA.

Potential: Top-Line Player

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

Speaking of players that are big and skilled, Kasper Halttunen has all the makings of an offensive monster. The 17-year-old Finnish forward is 6-foot-3, 207 pounds, and he makes sure his opponents feel the pressure of containing somebody with that size. He sometimes walks into penalty trouble because of his physicality, and learning to walk the line between being physically imposing and physically reckless will be an important development for him.

But man, this kid is going to be a handful someday. He’s got a heck of a shot that can do damage from almost anywhere, and his “soft skills” maybe fly a little under the radar because of how impressive his physical tools are. He might be anywhere from one to four years away from making the NHL; it all depends on whether he can take his offensive game to another level, and if he can harness his physicality without being a detriment to his team.

Potential: Top-Line Player

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

Watching Calum Ritchie play is sometimes like watching somebody play solo with their “Be a Pro” player in Electronic Arts’ “NHL” franchise. He wants to be the one with the puck, and he wants to be the one to make the big play that turns the tide of the game. It’s not that he’s selfish, it’s that he’s at his best with the puck on his stick – and he knows it. Outside of the top three players in this draft, he may very well be the best pure playmaker in this draft class.

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

With 45 points in 65 games, Ritchie has a productive rookie season in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). He followed that up with seven points in six playoff games, and then 10 points in five games during the Hlinka Gretzky tournament. His scoring ability is a bit underrated, but I do think he’s a better play-maker than play-finisher. He’s a bit slender for his size (6-foot-1, 174 pounds) and he’ll have to add strength as he progresses up the hockey food chain. If he continues to make steady progress, he has the potential to become a top-tier playmaker in the mold of Washington Capitals center Niklas Backstrom.

Potential: Top-Line Player

10. Cam Allen, D, Guelph Storm (OHL)

Rounding out the top-10 is the current top defenseman in this class, Cameron Allen. As a right-handed defenseman with solid instincts all over the ice, there’s a strong chance that, if his position in these rankings holds steady, he’ll hear his name called a lot sooner than this solely because teams are always looking for players/prospects like him. Team Canada’s captain during the Hlinka Gretzky tournament has a smooth stride that allows him to cover a lot of ice, and he isn’t afraid of the physical battles that come along with playing big minutes on the blue line.

While Allen isn’t as dynamic as you may hope for from a top defenseman in a draft class, he has all the tools to develop into a minute-munching, multi-faceted defenseman that can play in pretty much any situation. He has some serious power behind his shot, and he’s tenacious as can be in his own zone. He may climb up these rankings next time around if he can show a little more pop in his offensive game this season with the Guelph Storm.

Potential: Top-Pair Defender

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

I’ll take “players that could climb up these rankings quickly” for 400, Alex.

Producing in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) is no easy task, even for players that are well-established in that league. For a 17-year-old, it’s even harder to hold down a steady role in the league; the fact that Marco Kasper was able to do so this past season was one of the key reasons why the Detroit Red Wings made him the eighth pick of the 2022 draft. Leo Carlsson not only played in 35 SHL games this past season, but he managed to put up a respectable nine points in the process as well.

While Carlsson played almost exclusively on the wing this past season, he was a center in years prior, and it’s somewhat expected that he’ll move back to the middle at some point during the 2022-23 SHL season. He’s got great playmaking instincts and the competitive nature that teenagers need to hold down a spot in the SHL. I think he’s a highly-moldable prospect that could become anything from a shutdown center to an elite playmaking winger – or even some combination of both. He’s somebody that I expect to hang out in this range of the ranking all season, with serious potential to climb the ladder.

Potential: Top-Line Player

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

Back in the 2019 draft, one player that really stood out to me was Alex Newhook. When the Colorado Avalanche got him at 16th overall, I thought it was somewhat of steal; I thought he was a lot closer to being a top-10 talent than a top-20 one. In his 16-year-old season in the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL), he posted an incredible 1.47 points per-game (PPG) rate – a rate that was the best at that time. Fast forward to today, and Newhook’s mark is no longer the best; that honor belongs to Matthew Wood, who posted a 1.85 PPG rate this past season.

To be clear, Wood is a very different player from Newhook. One of Wood’s greatest assets is his size (6-foot-3, 194 pounds), and there are power forward elements to his game. However, like Newhook, Wood possesses silky-smooth hands and plays a confident offensive game. Projecting him is a bit of an exercise in tempering excitement because with his size and skill, he looks like he could be one of those unicorns that can play both a power and a finesse game. He is not the best skater though, and the progress he can make on that front will ultimately determine how high-end of a prospect he can become.

Potential: Top-Line Player

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

Colby Barlow already possesses some NHL tools – namely, his shot. He has a quick, accurate release that should do some serious damage this season in the OHL. Last season with the Owen Sound Attack, he had 30 goals through 59 games, and then he added five more goals through seven playoff games. If people are high on this prospect throughout the coming season, it will most likely be due to his scoring abilities.

Colby Barlow Owen Sound Attack
Colby Barlow, Owen Sound Attack (Luke Durda/OHL Images)

That being said, Barlow is already a fairly solid two-way player as well. He is strong positionally in the defensive end, and that could lead to him becoming a penalty killer as he develops further. There’s sneaky-good upside with this player as he can make a difference at both ends of the ice. If he can develop an element of playmaking into his arsenal, he’s going to become a real weapon, especially for a prospect ranked outside of the top-10.

Potential: Top-Six/Top-Line Cusp

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

Mikhail Gulyayev is going to be a very interesting player to watch as we progress through this draft cycle. In a vacuum, he’s an extremely mobile, swift-skating defenseman whose offensive instincts are off the charts. He’s a little bit undersized at 5-foot-10, but he plays that “modern-day defenseman” style that makes people drool all over themselves. His 35 points in the MHL this year smashed the previous record of 20 by a U17 defender.

The Russian factor could loom large here. Not only is he not the biggest defenseman available, but there will inevitably be concern about what his path to the NHL looks like. I think I maybe have him a tad lower here than I should, but I also am not sold on his overall defensive potential. With his size and skill, he will almost definitely be used primarily as an offensive guy, but I need to see him prove his defensive credentials against greater competition. This is another player that I foresee moving around in these rankings a lot over the next few months.

Potential: Top-Four/Top-Pair Defender Cusp

15. Eduard Šalé, LW, HC Kometa Brno U20

Eduard Šalé is the type of player that jumps out at you both on the ice and on paper. He posted impressive offensive stats last season while playing at the U20 level in Czechia (89 points in 39 games), and his ability to facilitate play as a puck-mover and a shooter is going to make him an easy player to compile a highlight package for. His offensive IQ looks to be sky-high, and he has a clean stride which helps him make his way up and down the ice and weave through traffic.

Related: 2023 NHL Draft Rankings: Forbes’ Early Top 16

Šalé uses his teammates well, and that was on full-display when he played alongside 2022 first round pick Jiri Kulich while representing Czechia during the World U18 Championship. Šalé seems to be the type of player that can elevate his teammates. He could cause serious matchup problems for the opposition one day, especially if he plays for a team with elite-level talent elsewhere in the lineup. I’m tempering my excitement about this player because of the quality of competition he faced last season, but there’s a really exciting prospect here.

Potential: Top Six Forward

16. Will Smith, C, United States National Team Development Program Juniors

This Will Smith is not likely to slap you at the Oscars. Instead, he’ll leave opposing defenders looking silly like they were slapped across the face. He’s a shifty skater with the ability to make finesse moves when he has time and space, and he has the hockey IQ to become an impact centerman at both ends of the ice. There are a lot of explosive offensive prospects in this draft class, some of which are ranked ahead of him here, but he may be one of this class’s most well-rounded prospects, and I personally place a ton of value in players like that.

The chief drawback to players that are well-rounded is that they tend to be jack of all trades, but a master of none. Generally speaking, every player has their niche – a part of the game they specialize and take pride in – because that’s how a player will carve out a role for themselves and gain meaningful ice time. I believe Smith’s puck skills could lead to him becoming a special offensive player; couple that with his solid fundamentals in every other area of the game, and you’ve got a prospect that could become a coach’s dream at the NHL level.

Potential: Top Six Center

Honorable Mentions: Nate Danielsson (Brandon Wheat Kings, WHL), Quentin Musty (Sudbury Wolves, OHL), Otto Stenberg (Frölunda HC, SHL), Riley Heidt (Prince George Cougars, WHL), Theo Lindstein (Brynas IF, SHL)

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned throughout this piece, the names on this list are bound to move around a ton between now and next June. At this point last year, for example, most people were convinced that Brad Lambert would be a top-10 pick out of the 2022 draft. As we know now, he went 30th overall to the Winnipeg Jets when it was time to make the picks. Do not be surprised if there’s another player who we’re all high on right now that fizzles out as the 2022-23 season begins in earnest.

On the other hand, I think it’s also important to just how many potential cornerstone pieces there are at the top of this draft class. Bedard is the crown jewel, but even the 12th overall pick could yield a player capable of becoming his team’s best player. Teams with a lottery pick when the season is over will be giddy over all the possibilities; teams with more than one first rounder will have the opportunity to completely change the complexion of their prospect pool.

I am already very excited to lend my perspective to this draft cycle, and it has only just begun.