How Might The Columbus Blue Jackets Utilize Their Upcoming Lottery Pick In The 2023-24 Season?

By Dan Dukart on May 4, 2023 at 1:45 pm
Connor Bedard warms up in the 2023 CHL Top Prospects Game
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Blue Jackets won't be adding a player to their lineup next Monday, but the draft lottery will paint a better picture of which player could be selected.

With that in mind, here's a quick primer on the consensus top-five players in the upcoming NHL draft, from the estimated timeline, positional fit, and overall value.

Connor Bedard

Let's just get this out of the way. Bedard would be an instant top-line player, a potential generational type of star that the organization could build around for a decade-plus. Bedard has the flexibility to play wing and center, and it remains to be seen if he'll play center day one in the NHL. It doesn't remain to be seen, however, if he'll play on an NHL lineup next season. 

The Blue Jackets lack depth and talent at center ice, so it would be tempting to slot Bedard at 1C, drop Boone Jenner to 2C, and allow Dmitry Voronkov and Cole Sillinger to figure out 3C. Keeping Jenner at 1C and flanking him with, say, Bedard and Johnny Gaudreau, would also be an interesting look.

Adam Fantilli

The upshot of landing Fantilli is the crystal clear nature of what you're getting - a bonafide 1C with size, skill, and everything in between. He may not have the ridiculous high-end points ceiling of a Bedard, but he'd be one hell of a consolation prize, as the Hobey Baker-winner is a likely first-overall pick in most drafts. It's not fair to characterize Bedard as a perimeter player; he's definitely more than that. But Fantilli is a 6'2" horse of a player that is built for all types of games. 

Fantilli would probably start at 2C in Columbus, which would keep Jenner at 1C for at least the start of this season. The top-six center depth chart would instantly be improved, and, with a cast of wingers that includes Gaudreau, Patrik Laine, Kirill Marchenko, Kent Johnson, etc., it's easy to imagine him as a plug-and-play option, giving the Blue Jackets a long-term playoff-ready top-line center for the first time in, well, ever. 

Matvei Michkov

Michkov's contract with KHL's SKA St. Petersburg runs until 2026. Can the Blue Jackets afford to wait until then? From a lifecycle standpoint, it's an interesting thought experiment. I'm not convinced GM Jarmo Kekalainen has enough rope to basically defer an All-Star caliber player for a few more seasons, given that he's moving onto what could be his last chance at hiring a new coach. On the other hand, the Blue Jackets aren't all that close (my opinion) to competing for a playoff spot, with or without Michkov. Having another few years of pain doesn't sound all that appealing, but it could be in the best interest of the franchise long-term to continue its natural growth. By the time Michkov would join the team, they could be genuinely ready to compete. Aside from the delay in arrival, Michkov is a winger, and this club is in need of a center. Who knows where they'll be in 2026, but, all things equal, you'd prefer a center here.

The upshot is that Michkov is arguably the best Russian prospect since Alexander Ovechkin. Other Russian stars, like Artemi Panarin (undrafted), Kirill Kaprizov (fifth round), and, to a lesser extent, Nikita Kucherov (second round), all had at least some warts in their pre-draft evaluations. Not so with Michkov, who is seen as a can't-miss talent. Can't miss, sure, but ... can't wait? 

Leo Carlsson

Carlsson is the first player on this list that comes with some projection. Bedard and Fantilli are almost certainly playing in the NHL in a few months. Michkov won't be for a few years. There's some nuance when it comes to the 6'3" Swede.

Like Bedard, he's toggled back and forth from center to wing, and it's unclear where he projects long-term. Given his profile (versatility, nationality, skillset, frame, etc.), he's compared to Colorado Avalanche star forward Mikko Rantanen. Carlsson already has two years of professional hockey in the SHL under his belt before his draft year and he's shown well. It would be interesting to see him continue to follow the blueprint set by Rantanen and have him go from the SHL directly to the AHL to start his D+1 season, where he can be regularly touched by the organization's development and coaching staff. 

Compared to Bedard and Fantilli, Carlsson would probably be a short-term disappointment. He's not expected to make the same contributions this season, but his long-term prospects are still quite exciting. Who wouldn't take Rantanen v2? 

Will Smith

Whereas Carlsson is unlikely to start the upcoming season in the NHL, Smith is certainly not. He'll be a freshman at Boston College next season, where he and his two linemates at the UNTDP will be reuniting. His production at the U18 level was impressive, and he was recently named MVP of the U18 World Championships. That said, Bedard was MVP of the U20 World Junior Championships. Smith didn't even make Team USA. Suffice it to say, there's a gap. The 5'11" right-shot center is likely to play one, maybe two seasons at BC before making the jump to pro hockey.  

The calculus for the Blue Jackets will be interesting. If they pick one or two, it's a pretty obvious call. If they pick three or four, which is statistically likely, some difficult decisions will need to be made. Do you take the player with the highest ceiling, likely Michkov? Do you take the player with a rising stock, like Smith? Or split the difference and be very happy with Carlsson? Does position take priority over skill? How important is proximity to the NHL? 

Many questions remain, but Monday will at least allow us to narrow them down.

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