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Evaluation System: Talking 2023 NHL Draft Forwards

The top end of the 2023 NHL Draft is absolutely stacked. There have been some questions about the depth of the draft, and the likelihood of finding diamonds in the rough. Will there be a Sebastian Aho or Roope Hintz out of the second round, as there was in 2015? A Patrice Bergeron in the second round, as there was in 2003?

I’m not here to speak on that. But the first round, especially the top-15, is one of the most stacked draft classes that this league has seen in a while. In my estimation, this is a generational lottery half of the first round. But how did I come to this estimation?

There’s traditional scouting, in which the eye test is used to inform projectability to the next level. That’s important. There’s good ole NHLe, where an NHL equivalence model is used to create likelihoods of both potential stardom and NHL viability.

The drawbacks of NHLe are obvious to even its most ardent supporters. Since it can only tell you what a prospect has done to date, it can’t possibly tell you where the prospect is going to end up. It misses anomalous development that scouts may have been banking on the entire time.

But traditional scouting has its own flaw from what I’ve seen. It focuses too broadly on certain tools and ignores other tools entirely, based on the preference of the scout. That isn’t how NHL players work. Jason Robertson and David Pastrnak are both NHL superstars, but they have largely different toolsets and the way they reached this level looks very different.

Robertson and Pastrnak leveraged different tools.

It was with this thought that my prospect grading system was born. The concept is fairly simple.

I examine 10 attributes that a prospect is most likely to use on their way to becoming an impact player in the NHL. I give each attribute a score from 1-10 with what I call the “11 exception” being used sparingly. I use 0.25 increments for precision and minor distinctions when necessary.

The 10 attributes I consider for forwards are as follows:

  • Speed
  • Edge-work/footwork
  • Hands
  • Vision
  • Strength
  • Balance
  • Offensive Instincts
  • Defensive Instincts
  • Compete Level
  • Shooting

The grades, which go from 1-11, mean the following:

3.0-4: Potentially crippling flaw at the NHL level

4.5-5.5: A limiting factor at the NHL level that will need to be worked around or improved.

5.5-6.25: NHL average, or neither strength nor weakness to concern yourself with overly.

6.57.25: Above NHL average, but unlikely to project to high-end or elite status at the NHL level. “He has nice vision, but I don’t see Kucherov or anything close at his NHL peak.”

7.5-8.5: Above NHL average, and potentially projectable to become elite at the NHL level.

8.75-9.5: I consider it more likely than not that this trait reaches an elite projection.

10: Virtual certainty to be among the high-end of NHLers.

11: Generational. Could be high-end in the NHL right from their draft season. One of one.

When the results are combined to get an average score, the overall projection looks like this:

6.0-7.0: Likely NHLer but unlikely to hit star levels.

7.1-7.5: High-risk star investments. Typically arrived at through exceedingly dynamic traits combined with glaring weaknesses.

7.5-8.0: Low-risk prospect with reasonable star potential.

8.1-8.9: Franchise cornerstone prospect. Stardom is, if not likely, one of their most realistic outcomes.

9.0+: Generational prospect.

Without context or explanation, here are the top-9 forwards in overall grade:

1) Adam Fantilli – 8.47

2) Leo Carlsson – 8.37

3) Dalibor Dvorsky – 8.37

4) Connor Bedard – 8.35

5) Matvei Michkov – 8.32

6) Ryan Leonard – 8.30

7) Oliver Moore – 7.85

8) Will Smith – 7.82

9) Zach Benson – 7.72

If you’re looking only at offensive potential, here are the grades removing the defensive elements:

1) Matvei Michkov – 9.28

2) Connor Bedard – 9.10

3) Leo Carlsson – 8.91

4) Oliver Moore – 8.78

5) Will Smith – 8.67

6) Adam Fantilli – 8.5

7) Ryan Leonard – 8.28

8) Dalibor Dvorsky – 8.17

9) Zach Benson – 7.75

Am I Low on Connor Bedard?!

Short answer: no.

I’m sure seeing Connor Bedard at #4 for any board under any context was weird as hell. In truth, it even raised my eyebrows.

But I’d stand by every aspect of the scoring that led to the result.

His low defensive instincts (4.5) come from a general lack of desire to play the center role as it was meant to be played. He loves hanging out around his blue line in the defensive zone, waiting for his opportunity to collect a puck and dash the other way for fast break offense.

In that regard, he’s a less extreme version of Will Smith. The other thing “working against” Bedard is a general lack of transcendent athletic traits. His speed and edges both rank in the 7-8 neighborhood, which means I’m confident in him being above NHL average as a skater… but not at all confident in his skating being high-end.

His strength dragged down by being a relatively undersized 18-year-old, is still considered good at 6.25. His disproportionately strong lower half propels that, but I hesitate to go any higher than that.

His balance, again propelled by his lower half strength, is graded at 7.75. I’m pretty confident it’ll get to high-end levels at the NHL, but his edges being strong—and not elite—make me hesitate to go any higher than that.

Furthermore, I haven’t seen him power through contact at any level higher than U20, and even there… he doesn’t usually have to power through contact. He’s so slippery that he generally avoids it altogether.

His offensive potential score is more indicative of the “generational” label that everyone has given him, receiving a 9.1 in that subsection.

His shot and hands both received an 11. I’m convinced that those two attributes are special, so special that they’re scarcely replicated even at the NHL level.

His offensive instincts received a 10. Some would argue for an 11. I considered it. Ultimately, I landed on Bedard being an elite tactical thinker who has two nuclear-grade weapons to leverage in his various manipulations.

When you have a shot and hands like him, especially at the U20 level, you don’t generally have to think all that carefully. Your calculations don’t have to be precise.

And his occasional habit of blasting wrist shots from the blue line or above the circles, dangerous offense at the CHL level but Carolina Hurricanes-inspired nonsense at the NHL level, was just enough for me to settle on 10 instead of 11.

A lot of this seems knitpicky. And it is, in a way. On the whole, I see a lot of what everyone else sees. Connor Bedard is a special talent with offensive potential scarcely seen in a prospect.

The Crosby and McDavid comparisons are a bit rich for my blood, even if his CHL production would suggest they’re warranted. But both Crosby and McDavid had athletic traits that Bedard does not.

Connor Bedard will play in the NHL next year, and I don’t anticipate him to look out of place. But I think he’ll take longer to realize his superstar potential than most expect.

Zach Benson Is A Risk I Want To Take:

Zach Benson is one of Twitter’s favorite prospects. He’s also one of my favorite prospects. His NHLe is fantastic, and his tape oozes intelligence and competitiveness. He seemed like a shoo-in for an 8+ score. I expected his offensive potential to broach 9 before I actually went into this process.

His playmaking scores are not lower than you’d expect. He received a 10 for his vision and a 10 for his offensive instincts. His hands flash enough to have earned a 9.5 and I’m even higher on his edge work than some, since they received a 9.5 too.

His shooting is one potential limiting factor. I don’t expect him to score a ton against NHL goalies. That ended up scoring a 4.5. He finds shooting pockets extremely well, but I count that more toward his vision and instincts. His actual ability to beat NHL goalies is not something I’m overly confident in unless he’s deking them out of their skates from up close.

I think everyone’s first reaction is to assume that won’t matter as he climbs the ranks. But when he’s less of a shooting threat, will defenses pay less attention to him? and will that result in fewer playmaking opportunities?

His top speed isn’t limiting to me, but I do see the whole “size/speed” ratio complaint: I grade it as a 6.25 without regard for size.

His size and strength very much are limiting, and there’s only so much his competitive level can do to mitigate it. I wonder if I was even generous when I gave his strength a 4.25, but I ultimately thought his understanding of leverage and his generally high compete levels were enough to make this more of a limiting factor than an actual weakness.

His balance is a 5.5, so again, nothing to write home about. He’s not overly hard on his skates, and he can’t be. If his strength comes around, though, his balance will shoot up to disproportionate levels given his great feet and tenacity.

I’m higher on Benson than my own scoring indicates, but I do think it shows how much of a gamble he can be. We’re guessing the shooting or the strength or the speed or the balance will come around. Maybe they all will, and he’ll be well above an 8-grade prospect if I update him next year when he’s an NHL-affiliated prospect.

I don’t count him out. And you shouldn’t, either. But there’s a little more risk in his profile than first glances would indicate.

You Have Dvorsky… How High?!

First: let’s talk about the production.

Dalibor Dvorsky, on the other end, may be the opposite. His U18s have raised his stock, but he’s still generally Twitter’s least-favorite prospect. His NHLe at the U20 level in Sweden is actually quite good. Weaker league or not, 2 points a game is absolutely ridiculous.

This is the flattering version of his NHLe, and it’s definitely the version that lines up more with the way I see his tools. The question is: why the disparity?

That’s one possible explanation. Dvorsky is about as young as 2023 eligible can possibly be. He’s still 17 to this day and was playing against men. That’s a hard thing to pull off, and it shouldn’t be surprising that he didn’t immediately catch fire while doing so.

This seems relevant. A fan of the team he played for describes Dvorsky’s situation in HK as having to navigate playing with underskilled linemates on a struggling team. Top prospects can be expected to elevate their linemates, but elevating their linemates in a men’s league could easily be a step too far. I mean, at that point, why not just expect them to be NHL stars out of the box? Projection be damned?

Connor Bedard’s CHL team wasn’t great. But he was Connor Bedard playing against 18-20-year-old players. Matvei Michkov’s HK Sochi was far from fantastic, and that was in the KHL. He still produced.

To me, that says more about Michkov than it does about Dvorsky. It’s a testament to the former, not an indictment of the latter. I have Michkov’s offensive potential over a full grade higher than Dvorsky’s for a reason.

On that note, let’s talk about the grades:

Dvorsky being 3rd on this board is largely due to his hilariously advanced defensive game. He could play defenseman if it was really needed, and grading him as a 10 in defensive instincts among forwards was an easy decision.

Were his defensive potential lower, he wouldn’t have been 3rd on this board. But he would still have been high. His offensive potential is still rated in the 8s.

The core of Dvorsky’s offensive ratings rest in his hands, his balance on his skates, and his shooting. They scored a 9, 9.75, and 9.5 respectively.

The shot seems like the least controversial rating. It’s fantastic, and when he gets space in HK, he can absolutely rip it. Projecting his shot forward to be a high-end asset is an easy thing to do.

The balance on his skates should be obvious to everyone, quite honestly. Is it just ignored? He’s superb at walling off defenders while he’s carrying the puck, using his back to absorb contact and his reach to stash the puck away from reaching sticks. He’s a brilliant protector of the puck.

He’s a threat on the walls to create offense from that spot because it’s so hard to take the puck from him. That was the essence of his production at the U18s and the Swedish U20 leagues.

That a 17-year-old is having a more difficult time walling off men and professional hockey players should surprise nobody, nor should it meaningfully alter his score here.

There is some danger to this projection. After all, it is possible that Dvorsky just grew faster than most kids and was an early bloomer. The more likely possibility, however, is that he’s just big. And will continue to be bigger as he matures, until his body reaches full maturation at a perfectly normal age.

I know there’s a weird consensus around hockey circles that small kids just haven’t had the time to grow, and big kids have had the time to grow. But that just isn’t how genetics work, usually. Small kids are small, and they will stay small. Big kids are big and will stay big.

Zach Benson is unlikely to pack on 50 pounds of body weight and grow two inches. He will almost surely put on significantly more weight, and he doesn’t need to be 50 pounds heavier. But surely you get my point. He’s always going to be undersized, to a degree.

Dalibor Dvorsky is unlikely to be the genetic anomaly who stops growing at 17 and will almost surely put on another 15 to 30 pounds as he becomes a man.

If he does, then his style of being hard on pucks and making plays off the walls or wrestling his way into shooting lanes will absolutely translate. He’s ready-made to produce offense against people desperate to take his time and space away if that happens because he will be supernaturally comfortable without space. Which will buy him time.

And if that’s the case, you have a special two-way center prospect.

Adam Fantilli has no significant roadblocks to being an NHL 1C.

By now, it’s become apparent that well-roundedness is a very good way to score very high on this system. To me, that only makes sense. A prospect with a ton of high-level qualities and no apparent weaknesses is a prospect who will have the easiest development path.

Fantilli has no weaknesses. The lowest grade I gave him was a 7.25 for his edge work, in which all of his turns were clean and smooth, but he simply lacked the wiggle that high-end footwork aficionados have naturally. The next lowest grade I gave him was for his defensive instincts. His score of 7.75 suggests that while he doesn’t exactly already look like the next Bergeron, I’m more than confident in his projection as a well-above-average defensive center.

He didn’t receive a single 10 grade, much less an 11. Instead, his page is littered with 8 and 9 grades, which tells you everything you need to know. There’s nothing in his profile that doesn’t project to being a 1C, and a very good one at that.

There is nothing in his profile that’s not to love.

He’ll be a Duck or maybe a Blue Jacket in about a month’s time, and all I have to say is: you got a good one.


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