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2023 NHL Draft: Watch List 1.0

2022 Upper Deck NHL Draft - Round 2-7
Photo by Vitor Munhoz/NHLI via Getty Images

Looking at some interesting prospects for Toronto

I haven’t done one of these yet, but we’re a good chunk into the regular season for every major prospect. There has also been two major international tournaments that have wrapped up: the Hlinka, and the U18 Five Nations Cup. So by now we’ve had enough time to get a good and balanced set of impressions on this year’s draft eligible prospects and how they stack up against each other.

There will undoubtedly be various guys who rise and fall between now and the actual draft, but we likely know 99% of the major names for who will go in the first round or two.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to say “Toronto’s range” will be in a playoff spot — so in the 17-32 range. Do I think they’ll only just make the playoffs? No, but that doesn’t really matter for this. I am looking at prospects who are ranked by most outlets to be in that range, because if the draft happened today we know “being in range” means they could be taken at the start of it, or even outside of it.

So, who seems like they could be interesting in Toronto’s range?

DRAFT TRENDS

This draft has a few characteristics to it. It looks like it could be the best draft at the top since the McDavid/Eichel year. Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli, Leo Carlsson, Matvei Michkov... there’s a good chance that anyone picking in the top 5, if not the top 10, walks away with a guy as good as some of the top picks in more recent years. That’s likely an exaggeration, but suffice to say the top of the draft has some real high end potential.

It’s especially strong when it comes to forwards, and also centers. Five of the top six prospects ranked by Bob McKenzie in his early season draft ranking are centers — and actual centers, too. 9 of his top 16 are centers. The other trend related to forwards is that this year sees the return of the Short Kings, after last year was pretty weak for smaller, high scoring offensive prospects, most of whom will likely be available when Toronto picks because there is still a good amount of high profile but bigger players.

On the flipside, this year’s defense prospects seem a bit weak, at least at the top. There are some intriguing options outside of the top half of the projected first round, but the lack of real high-end, blue-chip defense prospects at the top will likely mean some of them get taken early. That’s assuming none of them really emerge to become genuine top 10 guys.

As far as where all these prospects are coming from, Western Canada is likely going to have its best ever crop of picks in this year’s draft. Of McKenzie’s top 16 prospects in his early ranking, the WHL alone accounted for four of them, including two of the top five. But even outside the high end prospects, they could very well wind up with 11 first rounders coming from the WHL or its lesser junior leagues (e.g., the BCHL). Maybe even more. And there would likely still be several more in the second round as well. They have a very, very deep class this year.

The last trend is that while last year was a real rough one for goalie prospects, this year does look to be better. There’s no potential star goalie prospect like we had for a few years in a row — there’s no Wallstedt, Askarov, Knight, or Cossa. But there may be one or two who sneak in at the end of the first round, and a good chunk in the second.

All that said, let’s see who’s potentially available in Toronto’s range.

FORWARDS

Will Smith — A 6’0” center on the US National Development team, Smith is arguably the top prospect coming out of the USA, in a relatively weak draft for them. They have volume, but lack the high-profile hype. There’s no Matthews, Hughes, or even a Cooley this year. But Smith is clearly the best player on the USNTDP, with 19 goals and 46 points in 23 games for their program. McKenzie had him as an honourable mention just outside of his top 16 rankings to start the year, so he’s likely going to see his draft stock go up if he continues scoring at the rate he is.

Andrew Cristall (LW) — Cristall is one of a few prospects who are smaller (5’9” + 150 lbs) who are scoring like crazy but don’t yet have the mainstream draft hype. He has 12 goals and 28 points in 15 games in the WHL, which is tied for 5th in the entire WHL regardless of age. He is a real dual threat playmaker, who can pass it and score it and is leading his team by a comfortable margin. He may not crack the top 15 in this year’s draft just because of how deep it is, and because he’s a smaller winger who isn’t as balanced a player as others ahead of him, even if he’s better offensively. I really like what I’ve seen from him.

Jayden Perron (RW) — Perron is another high scoring but smaller (5’8” + 157 lbs) prospect, and he seems likely to be the most criminally underrated prospect by mainstream scouting this year. He’s third in the USHL in scoring on the Chicago Steel, with 7 goals and 19 points in 15 games. Despite his offense, the NHL Central Scouting rated him as a “C” grade prospect, which would put him into the third round of their rankings. It’s easy for a smaller, scoring winger on a very high powered team like the Steel to go underrated. Just ask Sean Farrell. Perron is #18 in the video below.

Riley Heidt (C) — Heidt is a 5’11” center and former #2 pick in the WHL draft, so he’s had some hype to him for a while. So far, he’s been realizing it. He may not be a top 15 pick in this year’s draft, mostly because of how deep it is. He’s more of a playmaker than he is a goal scorer, but I’ve seen him fire off some good looking shots including a one timer that could make him more of a dual-threat offensively. I haven’t seen a lot of him yet to the point I can comfortably rate how good he is as a center defensively, or without the puck. But I’d say he’s not terrible at the very least. He has 26 points in 18 games in the WHL as Prince George’s 1C on a young, rebuilding team. That’s good for a tie of 7th in the whole WHL, but second on his team behind the next guy.

Koehn Ziemmer (RW) — Ziemmer is a late 2004 birthday, and rides shotgun on Riley Heidt’s line for Prince George. And by shotgun, I mean it pretty literally because he’s a shooter. He has 16 goals and 31 points in just 18 games, good for second in the entire WHL behind only some guy named Connor Bedard. He’s a 6’0” guy so he isn’t that small, and as you can imagine he has a good shot. He has all the supporting skills that help him get his shot off in dangerous areas, but can make more distant shots more dangerous with curl and drags, shooting through defenders’ legs, and so on.

Matthew Wood (RW) — Wood is another shooter, also from Western Canada but he’s playing in the NCAA for UConn, making him teammates with Ryan Tverberg. He’s a big 6’3” winger and has 4 goals and 9 points in 11 games so far. He’s done a lot of damage on the powerplay, where his shot is a legitimate weapon. He has some questions about his skills outside of his overall offense, which itself is very reliant on his shot. His skating has the common issues a taller player has, but it isn’t terrible. His defense and playmaking lag a bit behind, but are not as high end. There’s a good deal of variety in his rankings, but going into the season had a fair amount of hype. Being close to a point per game in the NCAA in your D-1 season is a good way to wind up as a first rounder, especially when you’re 6’3”.

William Whitelaw (RW) — Whitelaw is another small (5’9” + 172 lbs) winger who can put up points. He plays in the USHL on the second line for Youngstown, and has 8 goals and 14 points in 12 games. He may not have the point totals of Perron, but he doesn’t have nearly the same quality of players around him. At the Hlinka and the World U17 championship, he was one of the USA’s best forwards even though he wasn’t part of the USNTDP. He had 8 goals and 18 points in 8 games between the two tournaments, and he was a lot of fun to watch. He very much fits my personal favourite category of player — the short guy who can rip it.

Luca Pinelli (LW) — Speaking of small guys who can rip it, Luca Pinelli is a 5’9” forward who can really shoot it. He has 9 goals and 21 points in 16 games for Ottawa in the OHL, which is tied for 13th in the entire league. For U18 players, he ranks first for total points and tied for 2nd in total goals. What I like about his shot is that he seems to use it well. He doesn’t wind up to rip it, and knows when getting the shot off quickly is better than always shooting it as hard as possible. But he’s not a one-dimensional scorer. He has a good amount of energy and shows pretty consistent effort without the puck and in the defensive zone.

Timur Mukhanov (C/RW) — Mukhanov is just fun. He’s another smaller (5’8” or 5’9” depending on what source you believe) forward, who is 2nd in the MHL in Russia for points per game for draft eligible players, and has 8 goals and 7 assists in just 12 games. The reason why he isn’t closer to the top in total points is because he’s also gotten into 9 games in the VHL as well, where he has another 2 goals. He’s a good, shifty skater who looks like a dual-threat offensively with the puck, but I’d say his shot is his bigger strength. Like Pinelli, I’ve also seen him get the most out of his shot by doing things like using curl and drags as well as lightning quick releases to beat goalies as they’re moving.

Bradley Nadeau (LW) — Nadeau seems like this year’s front runner for top prospect coming out of Junior A leagues. Playing on a stacked Penticton team in the BCHL, Nadeau is leading the league with 17 goals and 36 points in only 18 games. Now, junior leagues like the BCHL are always high scoring so he should be lighting the league on fire to be considered a legit top prospect. By comparison, Carter Savoie — who is also a smaller forward (Nadeau is 5’10”) in a similar league, had 53 goals and 99 points in 54 games in his draft year, and he was a 4th round pick. But he is getting rave reviews by scouts for his speed and skill, but with some flaws. That seems to be a common thing for a lot of these players I’m talking about, which makes sense as potential late first rounders.

Aydar Suniev (LW) — Suniev is like Nadeau in that he is also a member of the Penticton Vees. He is tied for third in the BCHL in points, with 12 goals and 24 points in just 15 games. He’s second if you filter just for U18 players. While Nadeau plays on the top line, Suniev is a winger that plays on the second line. He’s also a different body type, as he’s 6’2” and 205 lbs. I haven’t seen any full games of him so far, just highlights. But a number of people who have watched him are giving him rave reviews for his blend of size, skill, skating and “pro-level habits”. He has some of the typical big guy skating issues in terms of foot speed and maneuverability, but he can really motor. His “pro-level” playstyle reminds me a bit of Matthew Knies, in that he is constantly trying to get the puck to dangerous areas — either carrying it himself, or setting up teammates there. He can set up teammates but has a wicked wrist and slapshot too. Without the puck, he gets good reviews for his effort and execution with backchecking. He’s not typically ranked in the first round right now, but with his size and good production he may get there. If not, consider him an interesting guy for the 2nd/3rd rounds at the rate he’s going. He’s one of my early favourites in this draft for forwards, along with Cristall and Whitelaw.

DEFENSEMEN

Caden Price (LD) — Price (6’1” + 181 lbs) may wind up as the top defenseman taken in the draft, but as of now he isn’t the consensus top ranked defender. He is, however, my personal early favourite defenseman after watching him at the Hlinka. He didn’t get a rank or an honourable mention in McKenzie’s early season ranking, where Cam Allen was in his top 10 and Mikhail Gulyayev got an HM. But for me, Price is my early favourite defenseman. He was great at the Hlinka tournament, arguably Canada’s best all-round defenseman. He is just very good across the board. He’s a very good skater, good at moving the puck up the ice, good setting up teammates with passes, good defending the rush, good defending in his own end, and so on. I always like a young defenseman who shows advanced reads defensively to shut down rushes 1 on 1, even against top prospects. And I like it even more when they also have the skill to get the puck out of his own end with control. He has all of that. His biggest knock may be a lack of really high end offensive skill, but what I’ve seen it has some projection, if it’s more as a puck mover than as a goal scoring defenseman. he’s also a very late birthday (Aug 24), so he arguably has much more room to develop than other top defensemen this draft, like Allen (Jan 7).

Mikhail Gulyayev (LD) — Gulyayev is a smaller defenseman (5’10” + 170 lbs) but he has a few things going for him. He’s already spent most of this season at the pro levels in Russia. Last year he set an MHL record for points by a 16 year old defenseman. He also participated at the Hlinka tournament as a 16 year old, so a year younger than most other players, and still had 5 points in 5 games. He has 11 games in the KHL, 5 in the VHL and only 3 in the MHL where he had 6 points. I’ve seen some scouts say he was already too good for junior, and his team seems to agree. In the KHL, he’s not getting much ice time but the fact he’s been called up and kept around is a sign of how advanced he already is. He has a good amount of skill and skating, and can clearly produce offensively — at even strength, and quarterbacking a powerplay. But he’s rising up to the pro levels because he is also a smart and capable defender as well. McKenzie had him as an honourable mention, so just below the halfway point of the first round. I can see him falling a bit if bigger defensemen step up down the stretch, because of the Russia and size factor. So I can see him being available in Toronto’s range.

Axel Sandin-Pellikka (RD) — The player affectionately nicknamed Sandy Pelican (nickname is not actually official) is a 5’11” right shot defender. In 15 games at the U20 junior level, Sandy Pelican has 7 goals and 14 points in 15 games. In the SHL, he’s gotten into 7 games and has 1 goal. After watching him at the Hlinka, his standout attribute was his skating and that’s always a good thing to have for a defenseman. He is better right now offensively than he is defensively, but flashes high end skill on both sides of that coin. Right now he still needs to get more consistent with both elements, otherwise he’ll wind up as a fringe first rounder. But he is still pretty fun to watch as of now.

Maxim Strbak (RD) — A big (6’2” + 183) right shot defenseman from Slovakia, he’s playing in the USHL this season where he has 8 points in 12 games. He has a commitment to the University of Vermont in the NCAA. He played before this year in Finland’s junior leagues, where he hasn’t really put up a lot of points. But last year, when he played for Slovakia in various international tournaments he had 5 goals and 18 points in 26 games. Strbak got a lot of minutes for them despite being one of their younger players during U20 events. He’s big and is very strong defensively for his age, with some offensive potential that has been untapped until recently. He’s a good skater and shows flashes of strong puck handling and passing, plus an okay shot from the point that’s more about quickness and accuracy than power. If he catches fire in the USHL I expect him to see his rankings rise.

Jakub Dvorak (LD) — Dvorak (no relation to any Dvorak we know) is an even bigger 6’5” left shot defenseman from the Czech Republic. He has a similar profile to Strbak though, as a potential two-way defenseman whose current strengths lean more on the defensive side. He uses his size and reach to snuff out rushes against him, but is pretty decent handling the puck and starting the breakout. He plays physical without chasing bone crunching hits, but uses his physical advantages to good effect. Here’s a good highlight reel of what he’s capable of.

Dmitri Simashev (LD) — Hey, another bigger defenseman (6’4” + 185 lbs) from Europe. Unlike Strbak and Dvorak, Simashev has more obvious offensive skills even if it hasn’t translated into a lot of points. He is a very good skater despite his size — I’m no expert but I might even dare say he’s an elite skater — which he uses to great effect carrying the puck. You can see a good example of that in the video below. Also unlike the other two, he’s still pretty slight so isn’t really that physical. He is capable defensively, though, which is part of the reason why he’s played more games in the KHL this year (15) than in junior (9). Even though he’s only been averaging 6:24, it’s still a good sign for how far along he is, just like with Mikhail Gulyayev. Defensively he has a good sense for maintaining gaps and using his combination of speed and reach to cover a lot of ground.

Lukas Dragicevic (RD) — Dragicevic is a 6’2” right shot defensemen in the WHL, and he is definitely one of the best pure offensive ones in the draft so far. He leads the entire WHL in points, regardless of age, with 25 in only 18 games. He has everything you would think an offensive defenseman has: he can shoot it, with a good slapshot/one timer. He can pass it and carry it as well with some good skating, and he quarter back a powerplay. He jumps up into the play and is confident getting deep into the offensive zone, with or without the puck. Defensively he’s more suspect, which is why as of now he’s only ranked at the end of the first round at best. More people seem to have him in the second. But if he continues his pace offensively I wouldn’t be surprised if he winds up as a first rounder.

Theo Lindstein (LD) — If Sandy Pelican is arguably the best defensive prospect from Sweden this year, Lindstein is the other one that has a legit argument. He’s a 6’0”, left shot defenseman for Brynäs. He hasn’t played as much as Sandy Pelican due to an injury earlier in the year, but he has 5 points in 10 games in the U20 junior level, and has gotten into 4 games in the SHL. Where he has a more clear edge over Sandy Pelican is during international play, as he has 2 goals and 12 points in 10 games for Sweden in two separate tournaments. He looked really good at the Hlinka as a two-way defender who can move the puck and play good defense, though I wouldn’t say he has one really standout skill. That’s something that may keep him out of the first round, especially this year. But I’ve liked what I’ve seen from him.

GOALTENDERS

Carson Bjarnason — Arguably the top goalie prospect in the draft, Bjarnason is — surprisingly by his last name — not Swedish, but is in fact Canadian. He’s 6’3” which is a good height for a goalie, and a June 30 birthday so pretty young too. And despite his age, he’s the starting goalie for Brandon in the WHL and has the second best sv% in the WHL for goalies with at least 10 games so far, with a .925 in 15 games. He’s had a heavy workload too, facing 40+ shots in four of his 15 games, and averaging around 35 shots against per game. As of now it seems like Bjarnason is the highest ranked goalie on most lists, mostly in the late first round.

Michael Hrabal — Hrabal is a 6’6” Czech goalie playing in the USHL for Omaha, with a commitment to UMass in the NCAA. In 9 starts, Hrabal is 4th in the league with a .919 sv%, with the three goalies ahead of him all 1+ year older. What really put Hrabal on the map has been his international play. At the Hlinka, he had some great games to keep the Czechs in it despite facing the most shots in the tournament, with a pretty good .917 sv% despite the workload. And in other tournaments so far this season, he has a .933 sv% in 7 games for the Czechs. He has a long history of being the top goalie in the Czech junior leagues too. He’s the other guy who is ranked as the top goalies, on the lists that don’t have Bjarnason on top.

Trey Augustine — A dark horse for the top goalie this year could be Augustine. He’s a bit smaller at 6’1”, but he’s the top American goalie playing for the USNTDP. In his three games against USHL teams, he has a .965 sv%. In 9 games as part of the U18 USNTDP team, he has a .921 sv%. While he’s not the highest rank on any list I’ve seen, he is still ranked pretty high in the second round. He has pretty strong numbers for a not as strong as usual NTDP program.

Yegor Zavragin — Zavragin is not necessarily ranked that high on many lists, but I’ve been following him since last year when he had a .930 sv% in 31 MHL games as a 16 year old. He’s a 6’2” goalie which is about average, maybe even a bit below average for the NHL. But Russia hasn’t been able to participate in the usual international tournaments for obvious reasons, which hasn’t helped him build much hype going into this season. So far this year, he started real slow, but has built his stats back up to a .913 sv% on a team in the bottom half of the standings. He also has a late birthday (Aug 23), making him one of the youngest goalie prospects in this draft.

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