The 2023 NHL Draft introduced us to a fresh crop of young talent who are already making waves in the league. Leading the way is #1 pick Connor Bedard, whose debut created history, while players like Leo Carlsson and Adam Fantilli have shown glimpses of their potential. However, some draftees are facing early challenges, and others are biding their time overseas. Let's take a closer look at the remarkable journeys of these first-round picks and the paths that lie ahead.
#1 Connor Bedard
Connor Bedard’s NHL career is off to a hot start. The 18-year-old center was the spotlight of the NHL’s opening night, with his debut game gathering almost 1.5 million views, making it the most-viewed hockey game in ESPN history.
Bedard’s first game could not have gone any better. Not only did the Chicago Blackhawks pull off a 4-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, but Bedard got to face off against his childhood idol, Sidney Crosby, and recorded his first NHL point. The next night, the Blackhawks traveled to Boston to take on the Bruins, and Bedard solidified his presence in the league by scoring a wraparound goal early in the first period.
Bedard undoubtedly has extreme talent and is a phenomenal player to watch, but Chicago head coach Luke Richardson says the forward will have to “learn to lighten up a bit” in order to succeed in the NHL. Coming from a season in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) where he recorded 143 points in 57 games, it is understandable that Bedard is frustrated as he adjusts to not scoring every night in the NHL. However, with the help of veteran linemates Taylor Hall and Ryan Donato, Bedard should find his groove soon.
#2 Leo Carlsson
Coming into the draft, Leo Carlsson was ranked as the number-one international skater by many scouting reports. While some fans were skeptical when the Anaheim Ducks selected Carlsson over Adam Fantilli, Carlsoon is still a very talented player. One of his most notable skills is that he is an excellent playmaker. He has top-notch spatial awareness and knows his passing options before he even receives the puck, meaning he can quickly make plays.
Unfortunately, Carlsson had to be helped off the ice after receiving a lower-body injury at Ducks’ practice in early October. The Swedish-born skater will miss Anaheim’s opening night but is expected to draw back into the lineup within the next week.
Although Carlsson’s time as a Duck has been short, his teammates have been surprised by his stickhandling abilities and the “finesse” he has, considering his large stature.
#3 Adam Fantilli
As if making your NHL debut is not special enough, this year’s third-overall pick, Adam Fanitlli, managed to play his first game on his 19th birthday. To make the day even sweeter, the Columbus Blue Jackets forward woke up to a text from Wayne Gretzky welcoming him to the league.
Fantilli was arguably the most complete skater at this year’s draft. He had a standout season at Michigan last year, where he led the NCAA with 65 points in 36 games, averaging 1.81 points per game. His impressive performance in the NCAA led him to win many awards, including the Tim Taylor National Rookie of the Year award and the Hobey Baker Award, which is given annually to the best player in college hockey.
In his NHL debut, Fantilli wasted no time making an impact. He recorded his first point, fired two shots on goal, and displayed his versatility by winning 5 out of 10 faceoffs. Columbus' head coach, Pascal Vincent, spoke to the media after the Blue Jackets’ game, describing Fantilli as a "driver" and emphasizing his relentless commitment to competing day in and day out.
What draft picks will we most likely not see this season?
While several first-round draft picks have already stepped onto NHL ice, others are taking different routes for the 2023-2024 season.
National Team Development Program players Will Smith, Ryan Leonard and Gabe Perreault will be attending Boston College in the fall. Meanwhile, Vancouver Canucks prospect, Tom Willander, will be heading to Boston University to join the Terriers’ hockey team. Tenth-overall pick, Matthew Wood, will be returning to the University of Connecticut for his sophomore season to further his development. These players retain the option to turn professional at the conclusion of their NCAA seasons and potentially make their debut in the NHL.
In a different twist, other players have returned to their teams overseas.
Montreal Canadiens prospect, David Reinbacher, signed his three-year entry-level contract with the club in July but returned overseas for another season. Reinbacher performed well with Montreal over the summer and gained much-needed experience adjusting to skating and playing in North America. Habs general manager Kent Hughes called Reinbacher “a diamond in the rough with a lot of potential,” and his teammates have been impressed with his maturity. Reinbacher will play the 2023-24 season with HC Kloten in Switzerland, with whom he recorded 22 points in 46 games last season.
Tenth-overall pick, Dalibor Dvorsky, signed his entry-level contract with the St. Louis Blues on July 14 but will be honing his skills overseas this season. He has inked a deal with Oskarshamn of the SHL, committing to the team for the next two years.
Philadelphia Flyers top prospect Matvei Michkov will be on contract with St. Petersburg in the KHL for two more seasons. His impressive previous season with Sochi in the KHL, where he recorded nine goals and 11 assists over 27 games, set a record with an average of 0.67 points per game, the highest for a first-time draft-eligible player in KHL history.
Two other Russian first-round draftees, Dmitriy Simashev and Daniil But, are also on KHL contracts for the next two seasons. They will be skating for Yaroslavl before eventually making their way back to North America to play for the Arizona Coyotes.
Notably, out of the five draftees selected from the CHL, Brayden Yager is the sole player who has yet to sign his entry-level contract. However, due to the CHL-NHL transfer agreement, unless these players make their respective teams’ NHL rosters, they will have to return to their CHL team. This applies to all players drafted from the WHL, OHL and QJMHL that are under the age of 20.
The 2023 NHL first-round draft selections have begun their journeys, and they promise to shape the future of the league in unique ways. As the season unfolds, these young prospects will continue to captivate fans worldwide, showcasing the depth and diversity of the league's future stars. The anticipation for what lies ahead is high as these players prove that the NHL's future is bright and full of promise.