June 21, 2023

Evaluating the top sleeper candidates for the 2023 NHL Draft

The goal of any draft-eligible prospect is to be selected as early as possible, and for those who slip further down the draft for whatever reasons, it’s not indicative of how their future will pan out.

Each year, players slip through the cracks, whether it’s due to a late growth spurt, slower development, or playing in a system that hasn’t suited their needs. Current NHL players Brayden Point, Ilya Sorokin, and Carter Verhaeghe were all selected in the third round of their respective drafts and have become highly regarded players throughout the league. Countless others have come later. Though we don’t know who those players will be from this year’s draft, we can forecast who may exceed their current projections.

In what was essentially a tale of two seasons, the No. 50 skater in FCHockey’s Final ranking for the 2023 draft, Nick Lardis, was one of the OHL’s top performers in the second half of the season following his trade from the Peterborough Petes to the Hamilton Bulldogs. His performance saw him rise from No. 96 in NHL Central Scouting’s midseason slotting to No. 27 in the final rankings.

After tallying only 19 points (12 goals, seven assists) in the first half of the year, the former sixth overall pick in the OHL Priority Selection was traded to Hamilton in a deal that brought Avery Hayes and Gavin White back to Peterborough. Once with Hamilton, Lardis’ game began to blossom, scoring 25 goals and adding 21 assists in the final 33 games of the season. He helped lead the Bulldogs to the OHL playoffs, earning 10 points in a six-game series defeat.

Lardis can generate scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates in a multitude of ways.

“Lardis isn’t a one-trick pony, as he can create for himself off the rush or through the cycle, and he can facilitate for his teammates by delivering accurate high-danger passes from anywhere in the offensive zone,” says Austin Broad, an Ontario-based chief scout for FCHockey. “His ability to see the play as it develops and to create while working at his top speed makes him a lethal offensive player. Once he was traded, he took off and never looked back, forcing his way into the discussion of the top few rounds.”

Making his major junior debut at 17, Carter Sotheran was one of the WHL’s most impactful rookies on the blue line this season.

Still particularly raw in his development, Sotheran’s offensive production and lack of experience are preventing him from being considered as a higher-ranked prospect.

Turning 18 just two days before the 2023 draft, Sotheran already stands at 6-foot-3 and 197 pounds. He’s a load for any screening forward to handle as he physically overmatches most opponents he comes face to face with. He’s by no means a finished product, showing plenty of signs that there’s untapped potential in his game waiting to be released as he matures and gains experience.

“As a rookie in the league with a raw skill set who also wasn’t invited to the CHL top prospects game, Sotheran certainly isn’t a household name — however, I think he has the tools to become an impact defender at the next level,” says Donesh Mazloum, chief Western Canada scout at FCHockey.

Slotted No. 65 in FCHockey’s Final ranking and No. 71 among North American skaters by Central Scouting, Sotheran is projected to be a late second or third-round pick this year with a much higher upside should he pan out.

“If he was a little further along in his development and was afforded a larger role on his team, I think he’d be valued in a similar way to Owen Pickering last season,” Mazloum says. “He has the size that NHL teams covet, but it’s his smooth and athletic stride that belies his stature that is his main asset. He is more than comfortable skating the puck out of danger, and his size makes him a difficult man to slow down.

“I also think he shows great balance between using his feet and utilizing his teammates with quick and clever outlets. With his ability to skate and play with length while chipping in with transition offense, it’s easy to see him patrolling the middle pairing of an NHL roster down the line.”

Despite missing the first two months of the season due to injury, Luke Coughlin left his mark on the QMJHL as an undersized defenseman. Standing at 5-foot-10 and under 175 pounds, Coughlin makes up for his lack of size with his skating.

Ranked No. 83 at FCHockey and No. 144 by NHL Central Scouting, Coughlin possesses a skill set garnering attention within the draft’s first three rounds.

Aside from using his speed to carry the puck through the neutral zone and across the blue line, Coughlin reacts quickly to the puck along the boards, making split-second decisions whether to fly towards the puck to keep it in the zone or begin backpedaling as play heads in the other direction.

Coughlin has an active stick in the defensive end, anticipating passes through the middle of the ice and breaking them up. His size can become a hindrance when engaging in puck battles or clearing the front of the crease. Once he manages to retrieve the puck in his own zone, he quickly finds his teammates with strong outlet passes as he begins the transition game the other way.

“Being a bit of an undersized defender and missing substantial time this season due to injury, Coughlin may not be at the forefront of many general managers’ minds, but he should be,” says Shaun Richardson, chief QMJHL scout for FCHockey. “He is a ‘plug-and-play’ type of contributor — no matter the situation, you just plug him in and he improves your team’s chances. His skating is so smooth and explosive that he can impact the play in all three zones, shift in and shift out. He’s strong on the puck, smart away from the puck, and there is simply just too much skill to ignore.”

Griffin Erdman has stood out as a player who can make an impact in the future among players not selected in the first round.

The ninth-leading point producer among draft-eligible players this year from the United States Hockey League with 41 points (18 goals, 23 assists), Erdman is an undersized forward who uses his speed and puckhandling as a pass-first playmaker.

Assuring he gets noticed on both sides of the ice, Erdman is fearless in the defensive zone, throwing his body in front of shots and flying around the ice chasing down loose pucks.

“Erdman is the most slept-on player, that doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough with the top talent in the USHL this year,” FCHockey regional scout Douglas Larson says. “He’s a very shifty and creative offensive threat with the puck on his stick and can make something happen out of nothing.”

Not turning 18 until September 15, Felix Unger Sorum is one of the 2023 draft’s youngest players — and perhaps one of the most underrated out of Sweden.

Born in Trondheim, Norway, but now representing Sweden in international play, Sorum Unger averaged over a point-per-game in the J20 Nationell, finishing the season with 46 points (10 goals, 36 assists) in 42 games. His play in the Swedish junior league earned him multiple call-ups to the SHL. He was also a force for Sweden at the IIHF Under-18 Championship, finishing as the team’s third-leading scorer with 10 points (two assists, eight points) in their silver medal run.

Ranked No. 68 by FCHockey and No. 57 among European skaters by Central Scouting, Unger Sorum prefers to set up teammates rather than go for goal himself. He has a quality shot that he could benefit from using more often.

“He is an offensively skilled winger that performs really difficult moves and plays that open up the game for himself and his teammates,” says Fredrik Haak, FCHockey’s Swedish-based regional scout. “The creativity and vision that he has shown that he has a high hockey IQ and creativity. When he gets stronger and more powerful, he could be a player that is really hard to shut down. The talent and potential are there, and with the right development in the coming years, I think he could be a player that should have been picked earlier.”

Continuing with the trend of undersized European forwards, Emil Jarventie of Finland was seen at just about every level possible at one time or another this season.

Starting the season with 13 points in his first 12 games at the U20 level, Jarventie earned call-ups to both Mestis (second tier of Finnish hockey) and Liiga throughout the season, where he managed seven points and one point, respectively.

Jarventie put together six points in Finland’s five games at the World Under-18s, including a goal in the quarterfinal loss against Slovakia.

Ranked No. 30 by Central Scouting among Europeans and No. 100 by FCHockey, Jarventie is a strong offensive player who flies through the offensive zone. His offensive skills are worthy of hearing his name called much earlier than he may ultimately be selected, but his defensive game lacks consistency.

“He has some extremely exciting tools with his shot and speed, and he has dropped significantly based on where I thought he would be after this season,” says FC Hockey’s Finnish-based scout Rasmus Tornqvist. “He might be a bit of a high-risk, high-reward type right now since he won’t be of much use in the lower lines based on what I’ve seen from him so far—but if he can figure out a way to produce at the pro level, he could be an extremely good pickup by a team looking for a speedy winger who can score.

“[It’s] Going to be interesting to see at what point he goes. I think anywhere from late second to late third round is a possibility.”

When projecting where Russian players may land in the draft, potential first-round picks may drop to the second or third round simply because they’ve honed their craft in Russia. There’s always a worry they’ll never transition to the NHL — or recently, the pressure to navigate around the current global state of affairs in the hockey-rich nation in its invasion of Ukraine.

Roman Kantserov, a highly skilled forward out of the Stalnye Lisy Magnitogorsk’s junior organization, is a potential top-six forward should he continue his development curve, capable of producing points regardless of where he plays.

He’s a deft playmaker and goal scorer, as proven by his 27 goals and 27 assists in 54 MHL games this season — earning him a spot in the top-10 among all point producers.

At only 5-foot-9, Kantserov’s size will drop him further in the draft than his skill set warrants. Despite his diminutive stature, Kantserov is a hound on both sides of the puck, with an everlasting engine, scraping for every loose puck. He’ll need to bulk up to become an adequate player against larger opponents in the future.

“He’s a shifty yet intelligent forward who shows an amazing amount of on-ice awareness and puck skills,” says Jake Janso, a regional scout with FCHockey. “He’s an adept passer and, with some time, could become a dangerous playmaker at the next level.”

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