by Bob McKenzie
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Connor Bedard is No. 1 on TSN’s Pre-Season Rankings for the 2023 NHL Draft.
Ten out of 10 scouts surveyed by TSN have the Regina Pats’ 5-foot-10, 185-pound center at No. 1 to start the 2022-23 season for the Class of ’23.
Was there ever any doubt? In a word, no.
“Didn’t have to overthink this,” one scout said.
From the moment the North Vancouver, BC, native was granted exceptional status in 2020 (to enter the Western Hockey League as a 15 year old) and then burst onto the scene as a “double underager” who scored seven goals in seven games at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship in 2021, the giddy anticipation has been that the 2023 NHL Draft would be the Connor Bedard Sweepstakes.
And here we are.
That is not to say there are not a lot of unanswered questions about Bedard.
Just how good is he? How good will he become? In the pantheon of great, young NHL superstar talent, where will he fit in?
Could he be a generational talent, for which the absurdly high bar that is Connor McDavid is now the measuring stick?
Does he have what it takes to be the next big scoring thing in the NHL, ascending to a universe that includes much bigger and physically dominant players such as Alexander Ovechkin and Auston Matthews?
And given how the 2022 NHL Draft unfolded — highly anticipated consensus No. 1 center Shane Wright, the last player prior to Bedard to be granted exceptional status, falling to fourth overall on draft day — will Bedard even go first overall on June 28 in Nashville?
“Well,” said one NHL head scout, “I suppose anything is possible, but when you look at how [Bedard] shoots the puck, his innate ability to score goals and you project him as an elite goal scorer who could very well get 50 or 60 in the NHL, how does a team picking first overall pass on that?”
“Put it this way,” said another NHL head scout, “for Bedard to not go No. 1, he would have to have a disappointing season and some other prospect would have to have an incredible year. This year’s [draft] class is fantastic; it’s loaded with great players but I’m skeptical [anyone but Bedard will be No. 1 on Draft Day].”
But that’s why they play the games, as they say.
Another more practical consideration for long odds against anyone unseating Bedard atop the rankings at any point this season is that his most credible threat comes from left-shot right winger Matvei Michkov, who checks in at No. 2 on TSN’s Pre-Season Ranking.
There are a lot of similarities between the two. Both are 5-foot-10. Both are elite goal scorers who don’t seem to let the glare of the spotlight and insane expectations throw them off their game. Both have an enormous “wow” factor in all that they do.
But Michkov is Russian. A Russian who is under contract in the KHL until 2026 and, therefore, almost assuredly more than at least three years away from coming to the NHL.
“From a purely on-ice hockey perspective, it’s very close [between Bedard and Michkov],” another NHL head scout said.
“If you forget about all the stuff you can’t really forget about,” the scout said with a laugh, “it could and probably would be a really good race between the two of them to see who’ll be No. 1 this year.”
Ah, yes, the “stuff you can’t really forget about.”
Russia is continuing its unprovoked attack on Ukraine. The war has led to sanctions against Russian hockey. The upshot is Michkov can’t play in any IIHF events, including the 2023 World Junior Championship or the 2023 Men’s World Championship.
The vast majority of NHL scouts, outside of those who are already based in Russia, will not be making trips this season to see Michkov or anyone else. NHL general managers who might otherwise go to Russia to see a potential No. 1 overall pick won’t be making that trip this season.
“Think about it for a moment,” an NHL scout said. “Will any elite prospect who would normally be in the conversation for No. 1 overall have less live viewings by more NHL scouts and GMs than Michkov this season? It’s unprecedented.”
So, too, is a potential top pick, a credible threat to compete for No. 1, to already be under contract in Russia for three years beyond this season. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko were in similar contract situations in their draft year, but neither was a contender to go first overall.
“Michkov may be the second-best prospect in the entire draft, maybe even the best, and given his contract status, I’m not even sure he’ll be taken in the top five picks in June,” said another NHL scout. “It’s a really talented draft class. If you’re picking in the top five, and the choice is between a gifted Russian who you have to wait on for three or more years and a gifted prospect who’s available to you right away…it’s going to be intriguing to see how it all plays out [for Michkov].”
For the moment, it’s a moot point.
Michkov is currently injured. He was rocked by a hit from former NHL defenseman Alexei Emelin in early August. Scouts will monitor any impact that may have.
The other factor in this equation is TSN’s No. 3 ranked Adam Fantilli, a University of Michigan freshman center from Toronto who has already publicly stated he’s not conceding No. 1 overall to Bedard or anyone else.
Fantilli has something Bedard and Michkov don’t: size. At almost 6-foot-2, Fantilli is a talented big man in the middle who is both skilled and competitive. He’s an excellent skater who drives play, competes hard, does a lot of heavy lifting in the hard areas of the ice and is not without well-above-average offensive skills.
In TSN’s survey of scouts for the rankings, Bedard got all 10 first-place votes; six scouts had Michkov at No. 2 and four had him at No. 3 while four scouts had Fantilli at No. 2 and six had him at No. 3. The trio separated themselves from the rest of the field.
“With his size and skating ability, Fantilli can do some things [Bedard and Michkov] can’t, but as good as he is, he’s not an elite scorer like those other guys,” a scout said. “But let’s see what his [goal] numbers look like in the NCAA this season. It’s going to be a fun year with this class.”
The rest of TSN’s Pre-Season Top 10 for the 2023 NHL Draft is as follows:
4. Brayden Yager. The Moose Jaw Warrior center has all the tools to be a well-rounded No. 1, at worst high-end No. 2, NHL center who can impact the game in every way — offensively, defensively, goal scoring and playmaking. His hockey sense is viewed as elite, and he has no glaring weaknesses.
5. Leo Carlsson. The big Swedish forward, who has the versatility to play wing or center, depending on the circumstances, has already earned some great early-season reviews for his play in Europe. He can score goals or make plays, and that offensive potential, along with a good-sized frame, nudges him into the top five to start this season.
6. Cal Ritchie. The Oshawa Generals center has the size, skating and skill combination that projects him to have a good chance to be a high-end No. 2 NHL center and the upside to be a lower-case No. 1 pivot in the NHL. Carlsson and Ritchie could not have been closer in the 5-6 slots.
7. Zach Benson. The Winnipeg Ice fireplug sub-6-foot winger is a high-energy, hard-driving, in-your-face player. He’s not a pretty skater but he more than gets there, and when he does, he has the ability to score, make plays, and be a disruptive influence.
8. Cam Allen. The Guelph Storm high-end two-way threat on the blueline is, remarkably, the only defenseman in TSN’s Top 16. He’s not quite 6 feet tall but plays with bite that makes him a more-than-capable defender. Allen’s forte is strong skating and puck skills, which allow him to contribute offensively in all three zones – especially when it comes to walking the offensive blueline and/or getting shots through to the goal. He captained Team Canada at the Hlinka-Gretzky U-18 tourney this summer.
9. Dalibor Dvorsky. The Slovak center has the size, strength, skill and competitiveness to project as a solid two-way No. 2 NHL center, equally adept at scoring goals and making plays.
10. Charlie Stramel. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, the American who is a freshman winger at the University of Wisconsin has that rare blend of size, skill and ability to physically punish. All the tools, in other words, to project as an NHL power forward.