Scouting teenage hockey players is often an inexact science.
Front offices around the NHL are tasked with comparing 17/18-year-old hockey players in different countries, playing against different levels of competition, sometimes against their peers, and often against men. To make matters more complicated, so much can change between their draft year and their 'prime' years that even being able to identify the superior player today can be a fool's errand.
That's why head-to-head tournaments are oftentimes a scout's dream. And for the Columbus Blue Jackets, the 2023 IIHF World Championships present a unique opportunity.
Participating in the ongoing tournament are Canada's Adam Fantilli and Sweden's Leo Carlsson, who are projected top-five picks in the upcoming NHL Draft. Fantilli has been the consensus number-two prospect for basically a year, but Carlsson is no slouch in his own right. This winter, Fantilli had a chance to make a name for himself playing on the same Team Canada roster as wunderkind Connor Bedard at the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championships, and largely disappointed. His lack of production was especially noticeable as Bedard torched the tournament and was the runaway MVP. That put distance between Bedard and Fantilli, and the larger field as well.
This tournament could serve as another fork in the road on the scouting schedule for Fantilli. He was utterly dominant in his freshman season at the University of Michigan, and his Hobey Baker Trophy was well-deserved. But Carlsson played against men all season, and while his World Junior was nowhere as impressive as Bedard, he outshined Fantilli. Scouts are careful to put too much weight in a short tournament, citing sample size and instead preferring an overall body of work. But if Fantilli is unimpressive at the World Championships, will that be enough for Carlsson to overtake him?
Carlsson became the youngest player to ever suit up, and score, for Team Sweden at the tournament. He plays a mature, heady game that projects well to the NHL. Canada has had youngsters play in the past, but Fantilli stands out on this roster for his lack of NHL experience.
Adam Fantillis mens worlds (so far):— Scott Wheeler (@scottcwheeler) May 15, 2023
3GP, 0G, 2A, 2PTS, +2, 5SOG, 11:30 TOI
Neither player has done much to produce a ton of offense in their respective games with Canada or Sweden so far, but that's to be expected for players who aren't even old enough to have yet played at the NHL level.
Canada catches Slovakia out on a line change. Pierre-Oliver Joseph zips it up to Adam Fantilli, whose nice set up gives Michael Carcone a prime scoring chance.#FlyTogether #SVKCAN #IIHFWorlds pic.twitter.com/8HMnJ5GeAT— Derek Lee (@Derek_Lee27) May 15, 2023
GM Jarmo Kekalainen and company are scouting the tournament, and there's no doubt that he has an interest in both of these players. The third center that could be on the club's radar, USNTDP star Will Smith, is not participating at the Worlds, which could impact his overall draft stock as well.
Either way, the Blue Jackets and other teams that are picking at the top of next month's draft are surely interested in the Fantilli vs. Carlsson debate. And while it's another isolated event, at some point, results matter.