June 23, 2023

Ranking the top center options at the 2023 NHL Draft

There’s an abundance of center options that stack the top of the 2023 NHL Draft.

With Connor Bedard leading the way, FCHockey ranks 14 centers in the top 30. It’s not as if these prospects are ranked highly in a below-average draft, in fact, the top four have the potential to be first-overall picks in plenty of years past.

Even toward the end of the first round, there will still be some highly skilled centers available with top-line potential. With different traits among them all, GMs will be tasked with determining which attributes best fit their organization as they look for these high-quality talents to become a critical cog in the future of their franchise.

All successful teams tend to have a high-end center leading their top line, with GMs prioritizing the position, as history shows. Dating back to 2003, a center has been selected in the top three each year. The last exception was when PierreMarc Bouchard was selected eighth overall by the Minnesota Wild.

Here’s a look at the center position at the NHL Draft, in recent history:

  • 2022: 31 in the top 100, 53 in the top 200. 62 taken overall
  • 2021: 28 in the top 100, 48 in the top 200. 54 taken overall
  • 2020: 26 in the top 100, 55 in the top 200. 61 taken overall
  • 2019: 22 in the top 100, 49 in the top 200. 54 taken overall
  • 2018: 33 in the top 100, 58 in the top 200. 63 taken overall

Here’s a look at the top-10 candidates to go at the 2023 draft, as projected by FCHockey’s scouting staff:

2023 NHL Draft Guide A

Connor Bedard | Regina (WHL) | 5’10″ | 185
57 GP | 71 G | 72 A | 143 P
FCHockey rank: 1

Connor Bedard, the standout prospect for the 2023 NHL Draft, boasts exceptional skills, including elite puck manipulation, stickhandling, and shooting. His sophisticated game understanding and offensive prowess make him a significant threat. Despite being a shoot-first player, Bedard actively involves his teammates, preventing opponents from focusing solely on him. While his size could be a disadvantage, becoming a more well-rounded player will solidify his status as a dominant NHL point-producer for years to come. Bedard’s potential as a transformative force in professional hockey is undeniable, and with further refinement of his skills, he could make a significant impact on the league.

Scout’s quote: “There are only so many superlatives you can use to describe Bedard before you start to feel redundant. He is as pure a goalscoring threat as I have ever seen come through the draft and he has the potential to be the next Ovechkin-like figure where Rocket Richard trophies come by the bushel.” – FCHockey chief Western scout Donesh Mazloum

Adam Fantilli | Univ. of Michigan (NCAA) | 6’2″ | 195
36 GP | 30 G | 35 A | 65 P
FCHockey rank: 2

Adam Fantilli, the consensus No. 2 pick, blends size, speed, and skill in a remarkable display of hockey prowess. His fast-paced gameplay, skillful skating, and brilliant playmaking underscore his offensive abilities. Along with his speed, Fantilli’s strength is a key attribute, often enabling him to engineer high-risk chances near the net. On the defensive side, his substantial reach and physicality serve to disrupt opposing passes and halt plays. While there’s room for improvement in acceleration, mobility, and defending offensive rushes, these areas don’t overshadow his overall promise. His impressive skill set and size make him a standout, even in a limited role. Despite needing to quicken his pace slightly, Fantilli’s potential to be a significant force in the NHL remains undiminished. His performance to date indicates that he’s well-positioned to become a top-six center, capable of driving offensive plays and scoring points aplenty.

Scout’s quote: “There’s not much more to say about Fantilli other than to keep bringing up his historical production in the NCAA this year. He looked like he could’ve survived in the NHL this year and done quite well in the process. He’s got the build of a franchise-changing No. 1 center written all over him. He’ll likely be the second name off the board come draft day.” – FCHockey regional scout Douglas Larson

Leo Carlsson | Orebro HK (SHL) | 6’3″ | 198
44 GP | 10 G | 15 A | 25 P
FCHockey rank: 4

Leo Carlsson has earned a reputation for his strong puck skills, vision, and all-around play. His smooth skating, combined with his power and agility, make him a likely top-line center or versatile winger. Carlsson’s strategic use of pace and exceptional on-ice awareness allows him to constantly find gaps and support his teammates, both offensively and defensively. His impressive size, reach, and puck-protection skills make him a valuable offensive asset. Despite needing to improve his shooting frequency, Carlsson’s superior puckhandling and two-way abilities make him a strong top-5 contender for the upcoming draft. His size, playmaking abilities, vision, and agility are highly prized. Carlsson is marked as a player to watch due to his blend of size, skill, creativity, and mobility. While room for improvement remains in skating and shooting, his high potential sets him firmly atop the draft class.

Scout’s quote: “Carlsson might just be the smartest player in the draft. He is close to a complete package that comes with a big body, exceptional hockey IQ, elite puckhandling, and impressive playmaking abilities. He is not the most dynamic skater you’ll find, but he makes up for that with quick changes of direction and impeccable positioning.” – FCHockey regional scout Rasmus Tornqvist

Will Smith | USA U18 (NTDP) | 6’0″ | 181
60 GP | 51 G | 76 A | 127 P
FCHockey rank: 5

Will Smith, known for his top-notch stickhandling and ability to change pace, is a top-10 pick because of his knack for purposefully attacking the net, along with his quick-release shot, contributes to his standing as a consistent offensive producer in the National Team Development Program. Despite some concerns, Smith’s exceptional skating, quick feet, and confidence during transitions make him a standout. Although he often creates more opportunities for teammates than for himself, his quick wrist shot poses a formidable challenge for goaltenders. Smith’s high-speed play, playmaking ability, and determination make him a coveted pick and likely the top American-born player in the draft.

Scout’s quote: “When Smith stepped on the ice this year it seemed like his shift would end always with the puck in the back of the net. The offense he constantly generated and the highlight reel plays he was able to make were remarkable to watch this year. Expect to hear his name in the top-five, and deservedly so.” – Larson

Dalibor Dvorsky | AIK (Allsvenskan) | 6’1″ | 201
38 GP | 6 G | 8 A | 14 P
FCHockey rank: 7

Dalibor Dvorsky is a standout prospect with high-level skills, a sharp offensive mind, and impressive puck handling abilities. He’s a dual-threat in the offensive zone, with a powerful, accurate shot and fantastic vision. His strong puck protection skills, excellent speed, and aggressive forecheck further bolster his profile. Despite the need to refine his speed, physicality along the boards, and defensive game, Dvorsky’s intelligence, quick hands, and solid skating put him in a league of his own. Plus, his defensive efforts and on-ice grit showcase his potential as a robust two-way player. His understanding of the game and ability to make the right play under any circumstance make him a formidable prospect. With high-level offensive talents, responsible defensive play, and potential to contribute on a power play unit, Dvorsky is a prospect any team would be lucky to snatch up.

Scout’s quote: “Despite often being talked about as a top-end offensive player, Dvorsky is surprisingly good on the defensive side of the puck too, which is an ode to his work ethic on the ice. He is an equal part sniper and playmaker, making him a very interesting target for a team looking to bolster their offense. This combination of elite shot and vision is what teams will be hoping transfers to the NHL level.” – Tornqvist

Oliver Moore | USA U18 (NTDP) | 5’11″ | 188
61 GP | 31 G | 44 A | 75 P
FCHockey rank: 9

Oliver Moore, a speedy, savvy, and creative two-way center, is an exciting prospect with significant upside. His exceptional skating ability, considered the best in his class, lets him dictate game tempo like few others. Moore’s impressive offense boasts a quick-release shot and stellar playmaking skills, and he’s deft at navigating the neutral zone, exploiting gaps in defenses. On defense, Moore is sound and shows a strong commitment. His positioning makes him a natural penalty killer, and he’s not shy about challenging larger opponents. While he could work on decision-making and shooting refinement, his occasional lapses don’t overshadow his potential. Moore’s ability to generate offense, maintain pace, and excel in all game aspects make him a sought-after talent. With further skill refinement, he’s poised to make a significant impact at the NHL level.

Scout’s quote: “Moore played second fiddle on a stacked NTDP team this year, but that didn’t stop him from having a very productive year while showing why he should go real early in the first round. His speed and overall pace of play were some of if not the best in the entire draft class. While the production may not stand out like his peers, there’s no question he belongs in that conversation with them.” – Larson

Otto Stenberg | Frolunda HC (SHL ) | 5’11” | 180
23 GP | 1 G | 2 A | 3 P
FCHockey rank: 12

Otto Stenberg showcases a vibrant offensive game, characterized by a strong one-timer and a tendency to drive pucks towards the net. His steady stride and skillful edgework make him a fearless skater, navigating through defenders with nifty stickhandling. However, he sometimes holds onto the puck longer than necessary, missing out on better distribution opportunities. Stenberg’s leadership shines through, but he’ll need to sharpen his hockey IQ and defensive zone awareness. His puck skills and ability to maneuver through tight spaces make him hard to forecheck, and his quick-release shot often catches goalies off guard. While he needs to boost his physicality and strength, his patience under pressure and awareness to change his release angle are noteworthy. Despite occasional overreliance on the puck, with increased off-puck effort, he can potentially fill a scoring-line role in the NHL.

Scout’s quote: “Stenberg’s strongest asset is his skating, which utilizes to create space for himself to use his above average shot. He also shows flashes of being a distributor, but his awareness is questionable at times, holding on to the puck a bit more than necessary. Since his frame isn’t the largest one around, he could definitely benefit from some added physicality. This would also help him in battles in front, which could make him an effective shot-tipper, which he has already shown he can do.” – Tornqvist

Gavin Brindley | Michigan (NCAA ) | 5’9″ | 165
41 GP | 12 G | 26 A | 38 P
FCHockey rank: 15

Gavin Brindley, a feisty offensive dual-position forward, makes plays count on both sides of the puck despite his size. His swift hands and agility let him create offense at impressive speed, showcasing excellent skating skills. He can skillfully stickhandle in tight spaces and control the puck superbly. Not only an efficient playmaker, he finds teammates in open ice and passes the puck with precision. His shot, although not frequently used, is powerful and accurate. Defensively, he’s prompt in closing gaps and disrupting plays. Unafraid of physicality, he battles for pucks in crowded areas. Although his size may challenge his gritty style in the pros, his offensive flair can’t be denied. His blend of speed and playmaking could make him a valuable asset for any team.

Scout’s quote: “For an undersized kid playing his draft year at the NCAA level, Brindley just did about everything he could to impress night in and night out. The complete effort was always there, along with some solid playmaking tendencies as well that led to some good production. While overshadowed by Fantilli throughout the season, his play and overall year didn’t go unnoticed.” – Larson

Brayden Yager | Moose Jaw (WHL) | 5’11″ | 166
67 GP | 28 G | 50 A | 78 P
FCHockey rank: 18

Brayden Yager, known for his potent shot and effectiveness on power plays, stands out as a shoot-first forward who’s blossoming into a playmaker. His snapshot is one of the best, with remarkable speed and accuracy. While not the fastest, his powerful skating, timing, and knack for exploiting vulnerabilities make him formidable. Yager has a pro-style, adaptable approach, knowing when to press or adjust to the defense. As a true center, his playmaking skills, unique shooting form, and solid defensive play are evident. He supports the play, understands his duties, and excels in faceoffs. Yager’s promise shows his potential to contribute at an elite level. As he continues to develop, his offensive tools and two-way game will make him an appealing pick, providing a team with a versatile and dynamic player ready to boost their performance and competitiveness.

Scout’s quote: “Yager did not quite light up the scoresheet as one might have expected but he plays with such a pro-style game that I don’t think he will fall far on draft day. His two-way play, physicality, and prowess on the faceoff dot means he should seamlessly fit as a center on an NHL roster. He also possesses a high-end shooting weaponry so if he can continue to develop his offensive instincts to better find soft spots in coverage, I think he has the ability to rise up the depth chart.” – Mazloum

Riley Heidt | Prince George (WHL) | 5’11″ | 166
68 GP | 25 G | 72 A | 97 P
FCHockey rank: 21

Riley Heidt is an intelligent forward with remarkable offensive abilities, including deft passing and outstanding puck control, making him a top-notch playmaker. He’s got a quick, accurate wrister and proves to be a formidable scorer. Heidt exhibits impressive cruising speed and isn’t afraid to get physical, including throwing out some slick hip checks. Defensively, he handles breakouts well, but he sometimes loses track of his mark under pressure. While Heidt excels at dictating play, particularly on the power play, he could improve by attacking more off the rush during five-on-five play. He’s bulked up over the year, readying him for the physicality of pro hockey, but his defensive work and engagement level might need a bit of a boost. Despite this, Heidt’s offensive prowess makes him an interesting option.

Scout’s quote: “If you are looking for a facilitator there are few more adept in this draft class than Heidt. He possesses excellent vision and shows an enhanced ability to thread the puck through tight spaces. He seems to revel in setting up teammates however he is far from a one-trick pony. His smooth ands, crisp edgework, and potent one-timer round out his game, and his skill level should track well to the pro game.” – Mazloum

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