Right now, the Chicago Blackhawks are playing themselves into the 2023 NHL Draft Lottery. Everyone who has paid attention to hockey over the past two years knows the prize at the end of the rainbow for teams that aren’t good (aka tanking) this season is Connor Bedard, with Adam Fantilli, Leo Carlsson and Matvei Michkov as the three “elite” consolation prizes in the top four.
If the Blackhawks finish the season with the worst record in the league, their worst-case scenario is the third overall pick, so one of those players will be there for their first selection.
But the Blackhawks also have the first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning by way of the Brandon Hagel trade last year. The Bolts are rolling – because that’s what they do – and are sitting in prime position to make another deep playoff run. So, the Blackhawks won’t have to worry about the top-ten overall protection Tampa put on the pick in 2023.
Let’s say that pick comes in somewhere in the late-20s or even from a conference or Stanley Cup finalist position (29-32). Who are some prospects who might be available for the Blackhawks at that stage of the first round (and, by virtue of them being bad, at the top of the second round)?
With NHL Central Scouting delivering their mid-term rankings this week, we now have some tangible lists to look at, digest and start fantasizing about fits for the Blackhawks.
As I’ve mentioned before, the group breaks out their rankings into four individual lists: North American Skaters and Goalies and International Skaters and Goalies. For the sake of this conversation, it’s worth noting the extent to which they rank players: there are 224 players ranked just in the North American Skaters category.
When looking at these lists, skaters in the teens in both North America and on the International lists are where we should focus our attention. There will be movement between the mid-term rankings and the final rankings, and teams will rely more heavily on their scouting evaluations than just these rankings. But we can at least discuss a few names I would love to be there when the Blackhawks are on the board for their second – and third – picks in the 2023 NHL Draft.
Here are a few names I would keep in mind (with their rankings – NA for North America and INT for International):
Note: I am using the heights and weight listed on NHL Central Scouting’s mid-season rankings, so there may be some differences between those and what you might see on HockeyDB, EliteProspects or in highlight videos.
Andrew Cristall, LW, Kelowna (NA-16)
This is a selfish top pick for me, because he was born on my 25th birthday. And, frankly, the Blackhawks have had good fortune with players born on Feb. 4; Denis Savard also shares my birthday. But this kid is a legit sniper who was a teammate of Colton Dach last year and for the first half of this season. He was a point-per-game player last year (69 points in 61 games) and this year he’s been a dominant offensive player with 26 goals and 36 assists in just 36 games coming into the weekend. He also had six points in five games for Canada’s U18 team at this year’s Hlinka Gretzky Cup. Somehow, Cristall received a B grade from NHL Central Scouting (which indicates a 2nd-3rd round grade) on their preseason watch list. Slotting him on a line with Frank Nazar would make me a very happy person in a few years.
Cal Ritchie, C, Oshawa (NA-17)
I’m not going to hide it here: I still like centers with good size. And I’ve got a couple on this list (not including either Fantilli or Carlsson at the top if the Blackhawks don’t win the lottery). Ritchie received an A grade from NHL Central Scouting on their pre-season watch list and there are a lot of elements to his game that I like. He’s ranked anywhere between a top-ten prospect to the late-20s by various folks, so his draft slot is a bit of a wild card depending on the team’s evaluation. I included Ritchie in one of my preseason players to watch pieces.
Koehn Ziemmer, RW, Prince George (NA-20)
Ziemmer scored 30 goals last year for Prince George and is following up that performance with another good season; he has 20 goals and 52 points in 37 games. I like his vision and playmaking ability that’s outlined pretty well in the video above. While some of the highlights display him attacking outside, he also has a willingness to get between the circles to create a scoring chance. He received a B grade on the preseason watch list.
Charlie Stramel, C, Univ. of Wisconsin (NA-21)
Stramel is a polarizing prospect in the upcoming draft. He received an A grade on the preseason watch list and played on the US team at the last two World Junior tournaments, but hasn’t been nearly as productive as a teenage freshman in the Big Ten as Fantilli at Michigan. Again, size in the middle is a big piece for me here. And I’m okay with his numbers as a teenage freshman in the Big Ten because it’s a really good conference this year (and I personally love the coaching staff at Wisconsin).
Kasper Halttunen, RW, Sweden (INT-9)
Here’s the first thing that jumps out to me about Halttunen: he’s a 2005 birth year player (June 7), making him a younger player in the upcoming draft but look at his size already. Bob McKenzie has him ranked 16th overall, and his combination of size/age might be a factor in a team taking the young Fin earlier than the Blackhawks are on the board. He received an A grade on the preseason watch list.
Noah Dower Nilsson
Noah Dower Nilsson, LW, Sweden
His brother, Liam, was drafted in the firth round of the 2021 NHL Draft by the Red Wings. Noah is a strong forechecker but his skating leaves a little to be desired; the Blackhawks have identified skating as a priority, but that’s a skill that can be taught if the rest of the package makes sense. He, too, is a 2005 birth year player so he’s younger than many of his 2023 NHL Draft classmates as well. He received a B grade on the preseason watch list.
Daniil But, LW, Russia (INT-11)
Okay, so the Russia thing is definitely something to keep in mind here. However, that may also open the door for a solid prospect like But to slide in this draft. And with the number of picks the Blackhawks have, taking a shot on a big kid makes sense even if it might take him a few years to get to the NHL level; they took that approach with their third pick in the 2022 first round, Sam Rinzel. But received an A grade on the preseason watch list and has seen time in the KHL as a teenager.