NHL draft Habs

Leo Carlsson, Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli

My 2023 NHL draft board if I’m the Habs

32 solid options to be had when Kent Hughes, Jeff Gorton & co. take to the podium in Nashville on June 28.

Ah, the NHL draft. A time that leads to extreme euphoria or despondency depending on which fresh-faced 18-year-old hockey player your team picks. 

Given how I was all aboard the Pain for Shane Train™ last season when the Montreal Canadiens got the first overall pick (and was gobsmacked when he fell all the way to fourth), I was initially crestfallen when we instead opted for Juraj Slafkovsky. The jury remains out on his development curve so far. Despite some flashes of brilliance at the NHL level, we arguably fumbled the bag by not letting him go to the World Juniors or spend time with the AHL’s Laval Rocket.

But maybe I’m just traumatized by the Marc Bergevin era’s decade-long disasterclass in prospect development and have therefore lost all ability to view these things clearly or rationally. That’s probably more likely.

Now, there’s a new draft to look forward to: the Connor Bedard draft. As bummed as I am that the Habs hung onto the fifth spot this year, there are still several fantastic options to be had at that position when Kent Hughes, Jeff Gorton & co. take to the podium in Nashville on Wednesday, June 28.

Just like I did last year, below are my top 32 picks (plus some honourable mentions for the second round) if I was building the draft list for the Habs brass this year. I’ve also added play-style comparisons to active NHL players, to give readers a more vivid idea of what to expect from each prospect — that said, it’s not necessarily reflective of their actual NHL ceilings. 

Keep in mind that this isn’t a proper rankings list or a mock draft, but a list of players I’m targeting primarily based on which players the Habs could benefit from most in the long-term.

1. Connor Bedard

Not going to say anything about the on-ice ability of this true generational talent, as Bedard really needs no introduction other than that. Instead, I’ll just say it’s absolutely fucked that the Blackhawks get to draft him (probably Gary Bettman’s wet dream, in fairness), when really the organization should’ve had to forfeit at least five years’ worth of first-round picks at minimum. This is especially the case when teams like Arizona and New Jersey have had to forfeit draft picks for far, far, far less egregious offences. Kyle Beach didn’t deserve this at all.

NHL play style comparison: Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane

2. Adam Fantilli

Between him, Trevor Zegras, Mason McTavish and Troy Terry, the Anaheim Ducks are likely to have one of the league’s most talented forward cores before too long. Fantilli absolutely torched the NCAA in his rookie season at the University of Michigan, putting up the best point totals by a college freshman since Paul Kariya. He’s a true-blue power centre with first-line gamebreaker upside and equal amounts of brawn and offensive skill, and it’s no surprise there’s been talk of the Habs attempting to trade up for the second overall pick to get him.

NHL play style comparison: Evgeni Malkin, Jack Eichel

3. Matvei Michkov

The most offensively gifted player in this draft not named Bedard, and with arguably the slickest hands in the draft, too. But he also comes with a huge caveat: he’s under contract in Russia until 2026, plus there’s the complicated geopolitical situation with Russian players following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. He could be taken highly by a team who can afford to wait for him, or he could fall out of the top five entirely. For the Habs, Michkov would easily become our brightest forward prospect in decades should we draft him, and we absolutely shouldn’t hesitate if he’s available. He’d be worth the wait.

NHL play style comparison: Kirill Kaprizov, Nikita Kucherov

4. Leo Carlsson

A tall, well-rounded centre with first-line upside, Carlsson has already been playing regularly — and thriving — against men in the SHL, Sweden’s top professional league. With elite vision, positional awareness and hockey IQ, this is a player the Habs should sprint to the podium to select if he falls to the fifth spot. He’s a skilled, incredibly smart player who also has a strong net-front presence and can contribute in just about all areas of the game, and those types of players don’t fall below the top end of the draft.

NHL play style comparison: Anze Kopitar, Aleksander Barkov

5. Will Smith

He’s a player whose name Habs fans can’t keep out of their fuckin’ mouths (sorry, I had to), and for good reason. Smith is an offensive dynamo in every sense, known especially for his world-class playmaking ability, creativity and excellent puck-handling skills. His defensive game still needs fine-tuning, but the Boston College commit proved he could be a dynamite play-driver after winning the scoring title at the U18 World Juniors. Better yet, Kent Hughes used to coach him, so drafting him makes a lot of sense if neither the Columbus Blue Jackets nor San Jose Sharks snap him up first.

NHL play style comparison: Trevor Zegras, Evgeny Kuznetsov

6. Ryan Leonard

Another Massachusetts native who’s also bound for Boston College, Leonard is a skilled power forward with a propensity for going to the net and getting his hands dirty. Just as good at deking out opponents and creating goal opportunities as he is at using his physicality to his full advantage, he’s a player Kent Hughes has publicly sung his praises about — even comparing him to both Tkachuk brothers. His no-holds-barred mentality on the ice may remind Habs fans of a certain Brendan Gallagher, but with better NHL upside.

NHL play style comparison: Matthew Tkachuk, Dustin Brown

7. Zach Benson

One of this draft’s smartest and most skilled playmakers, Benson has made a strong case all season to be considered among the 2023 draft class’ elite. His slight frame (5’10”, 159 lbs) will likely be a strike against him, and the Habs may be hesitant to pick him given how small guys like Cole Caufield are already prominent figures on the team. But prospects with play-driving abilities as sublime as Benson’s are extremely difficult to find, and his puck skills are easily among the very best in this class.

NHL play style comparison: Brad Marchand, Brayden Point

8. Oliver Moore

Moore is possibly this year’s fastest and most fluid-skating prospect, and his lightning speed is complemented nicely by his vision, passing and puckhandling abilities. With the NHL seemingly getting faster and faster, he’s the type of player the Habs should be keeping a close eye on before draft day. Some concerns are there about his ability to translate his puck skills to the big time, but the University of Minnesota commit’s development would be an intriguing project for team brass to monitor.

NHL play style comparison: Dylan Larkin, Matt Duchene

9. David Reinbacher

Some factions of Habs Twitter seem utterly convinced we’re selecting this steady Austrian blueliner at fifth overall, and it probably wouldn’t be the most exciting pick if that happens. That said, Reinbacher held his own against men all season in Switzerland’s top league this year, and is equally adept defensively and in transition. He’s one of the class’s more NHL-ready prospects, has a safe floor as a future top-four defensemen and would fill a pressing need for right-handed d-men for the Habs.

NHL play style comparison: Mattias Ekholm, Brett Pesce

10. Dalibor Dvorsky

Another player with a safe NHL floor, Dvorsky is a versatile two-way centre with strong hockey IQ and equally skilled at shooting and handling the puck. His draft season with AIK in the second tier of Swedish pro hockey drew mixed reviews, but potential for serious NHL upside is there. If the Habs were to pick Dvorsky, the Slovak connection between him, Juraj Slafkovsky and Filip Mesar would lay the groundwork for some serious chemistry between the three of them, perhaps even on the same line.

NHL play style comparison: Bo Horvat, Logan Couture

My 2023 NHL draft board if I’m the Habs

11. Axel Sandin-Pellikka

One of this draft’s best players in transition, Sandin-Pellikka is an offence-first defenseman who can run a team’s power play unit. He may be less defensively sound than Reinbacher, but his profile is nonetheless something the Habs should be highly intrigued by.

NHL play style comparison: Devon Toews, Ryan Ellis

12. Gabe Perreault

Son of former Habs face-off maestro Yanic Perreault, Gabe is a pure offensive stalwart who set the USNTDP’s record this year for most points scored in a single season. His skating is a huge question mark, however, and isn’t very physical.

NHL play style comparison: Jake Guentzel, Jordan Eberle

13. Tom Willander

A late-rising blueliner with excellent skating and a strong performance for Sweden at the U18 Worlds, this young Swede even got a couple reps in for Rögle’s SHL team this season. He’ll play for Boston University next year, bucking trends for top European prospects.

NHL play style comparison: Dmitry Orlov, Rasmus Andersson

14. Brayden Yager

Yager’s shot is easily the standout aspect of his game, as his release carries plenty of both power and evasiveness. Thought of as one of the draft’s top prospects before this season, his numbers didn’t quite pop off like many expected, and his ranking has fluctuated quite a bit.

NHL play style comparison: Phil Kessel, Reilly Smith

15. Andrew Cristall

An offensive wizard who scored at a 1.76 per game pace this season for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, good for sixth in the league. He’s divided many scouts, however, mainly due to criticisms over his skating, consistency and compete level.

NHL play style comparison: Johnny Gaudreau, Seth Jarvis

16. Matthew Wood

Standing tall at 6’3” and boasting one hell of a shot, Wood performed at just below a point-per-game pace for the UConn Huskies as the NCAA’s youngest player this season. Skating is his biggest red flag by far, but should he work hard at improving that, he could become a real goalscoring force in the show.

NHL play style comparison: Patrik Laine, Tage Thompson

17. Otto Stenberg

Relatively small at 5’11” and 181 lbs, but with clear and obvious skill, Stenberg captained Sweden at the U18 Worlds while putting up 16 points in seven games. He even got 23 SHL games in this year, and his puck skills and vision are easily his biggest assets.

NHL play style comparison: Ryan Strome, Dawson Mercer

My 2023 NHL draft board if I’m the Habs

18. Samuel Honzek

This Slovak forward for the WHL’s Vancouver Giants offers a great shot and a strong physical presence. A giant at 6’4” (even taller than a certain other Slovakia native Habs fans know), Honzek skates better than many other players his size can, and is especially adept at puck protection and playing along the wall.

NHL play style comparison: Valeri Nichushkin, Pavel Zacha

19. Nate Danielson

Captain of the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings, Danielson is a right-shot centre with a well-rounded game and strong two-way ability. The jury remains out on his exact NHL upside, but he absolutely has the tools to play regularly in the league.

NHL play style comparison: Phillip Danault, Ryan O’Reilly

20. Riley Heidt

Known for being both a skilled passer — and for annoying other teams with his competitive nature — Heidt put up excellent offensive numbers (97 points in 68 games) for Prince George in the WHL this season, though nearly half were scored on the power play.

NHL play style comparison: Mathew Barzal, Nick Schmaltz

21. Dmitri Simashev

His underwhelming stats in Russia this season may fool you, but Simashev is a rare breed in this draft. Big and tall at 6’4” and 201 lbs, he’s arguably the class’s premier shutdown blueliner, and skates far better than anyone his size should.

NHL play style comparison: Travis Sanheim, Jaccob Slavin

22. Eduard Sale

Initially thought of as one of the 2023 class’s top offensive forwards, Sale’s season hasn’t totally gone according to plan. He only put up 14 points in 33 games against men in Czechia this season, but still boasts some of the best puck-handling, skating and vision in this draft.

NHL play style comparison: Matt Boldy, Jakub Voracek

23. Daniil But

This is undoubtedly one of the more “high-risk, high-reward” picks, but that’s precisely why I have him so high — the Habs can’t afford to play it safe and avoid homerun swings this year. But’s skills remain incredibly raw, but the combo of his giant 6’5” stature and silky smooth hands is one worth pondering.

NHL play style comparison: Alex Tuch, Anthony Mantha

24. Colby Barlow

Barlow put up excellent numbers as captain of the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack this season, and his howitzer of a shot is an excellent complement to his powerful demeanour on the ice. His relative lack of quickness could hold him back at the highest level, but he already has an NHL-level build.

NHL play style comparison: Jamie Benn, Carter Verhaeghe

25. Ethan Gauthier

A Drummondville native and the son of former NHL blueliner/present-day RDS pundit Denis Gauthier, Ethan is one of the feistier and (finish) wingers to be found in this draft. He’s not going to wow you with pristine puck skills, but offers plenty of offensive know-how to fit nicely in a future NHL lineup.

NHL play style comparison: Mike Richards, Rickard Rakell

My 2023 NHL draft board if I’m the Habs

26. Carson Bjarnason

This is definitely higher than most people have him, but let’s face it: the Habs need a #1 goalie of the future, even if they aren’t going to quite reach Carey Price’s level. They could do worse than Bjarnason, a netminder whose poise during games is even inspired by Carey. He’ll need to tighten up certain areas of his game (e.g. his tracking abilities), but he has definite upside.

NHL play style comparison: Ilya Sorokin, Carey Price-lite

27. Michael Hrabal

Alternatively, the Habs could opt for an absolute giant as their future netminder. At 6’6”, Hrabal covers an immense amount of space in front of the net, and has great technical ability and athleticism. The Czech goaltender has performed well for his country internationally, and will be playing next season at the University of Massachusetts.

NHL play style comparison: Pekka Rinne, Ben Bishop

28. Gracyn Sawchyn

A skilled offensive creator, Sawchyn went a point per game this season for the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. Perhaps a bit underwhelming relative to others on this list, but he’s got excellent hockey IQ and knows how to pass and handle the puck with aplomb.

NHL play style comparison: Max Domi, Robert Thomas

29. Quentin Musty

Musty is perhaps one of the most divisive players in this class. His skill with the puck is undeniable, he has good size and boasts long-term upside as a power forward. Consistency and decision-making are two of his biggest flaws, however, so he’ll need to correct those fast.

NHL play style comparison: Pavel Buchnevich, Drake Batherson

30. Trey Augustine

Another solid option for the Habs if they go goalie with their 31st or 36th overall selection in the draft. He’s a bit small for a goalie at only 6’1” and 179 lbs, but his game is straightforward and efficient, and he’s one of the best skaters among goalies in this class.

NHL play style comparison: Carter Hart, Jonathan Quick

31. Calum Ritchie

Ritchie had bigger expectations placed upon him before the season began, but still projects to be a solid centreman in this league. Despite lacklustre skating, his biggest assets are his vision and hockey IQ, the fact that he plays well with the puck and has an even better wall game.

NHL play style comparison: Filip Chytil, Mark Scheifele

32. David Edstrom

A late riser who could go a fair bit higher than 32nd on draft day, Edstrom fared well in 11 SHL games this season, and stood out for Sweden at the U18 Worlds. His play style lacks pizzazz, but he’s a 6’3” two-way pivot with a whole lot of compete, and projects as a middle-six NHL centre.

NHL play style comparison: Joel Eriksson Ek, Boone Jenner

Second round considerations: Mikhail Gulyayev, Gavin Brindley, Oscar Fisher Mølgaard, Oliver Bonk, Bradly Nadeau, Jayden Perron, Beau Akey, Lukas Dragicevic, Charlie Stramel, Jacob Fowler, Adam Gajan, Juraj Pekarcik, Nick Lardis, Koehn Ziemmer, Matthew Mania, Anton Wahlberg

For more on the NHL, happening in Nashville on June 28, please visit the league’s website.

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