With A Few Options At Their Disposal, Blue Jackets Can Finally Draft Their No. 1 Center With Third Pick In NHL Draft This June

By Will Chase on May 9, 2023 at 1:45 pm
The Columbus Blue Jackets will select third in the upcoming NHL draft on June 28 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Columbus Blue Jackets, Bluejackets.com

The Columbus Blue Jackets can finally have their center.

It’s the position that’s eluded them, basically from day one, save for a few years of Pierre-Luc Dubois or Ryan Johansen before him.

There were guys brought in that were thought to be the answer. Like Jeff Carter. There are those that have taken on the role of playing center like Boone Jenner, who has done it quite well, and Patrik Laine expressing a desire to continue the idea of playing down the middle, which we saw implemented for a few games under Pascal Vincent as the acting head coach.

But finally, after winning the rights to the No. 3 pick, the Blue Jackets will be able to draft a bonafide NHL prospect that can be the missing puzzle piece to their long-awaited search for a true No. 1, game-changing, center.

While the ultimate top prize to come out of Monday’s NHL lottery was Connor Bedard, the Blue Jackets were set up to receive a high-end talent whether they walked out of the lottery with the rights to the No. 1 pick or even if they fell to No. 4.

With the Blue Jackets falling to No. 3 in the upcoming NHL draft, which gets underway on June 28 in Nashville, that means both Bedard, the consensus No. 1 pick, and Adam Fantilli, the probable second pick to go in the draft, are likely going to be off the board when Columbus gets around to making their first selection.

Not all is lost, however.

Will Smith and Leo Carlsson are both big-time prospects.

Whether the Blue Jackets take Smith or Carlsson with the No. 3 selection, they'll be taking a player that can be the center they've long coveted. Carlsson has dabbled at the wing as well. Then there's also right wing, Matvei Michkov. The caveat there being Michkov is under contract in the KHL through 2025-26, so it would be at least a couple of years before he's coming to North America.

However by that time, maybe the Blue Jackets are truly in the middle of their contention window, if not sooner.

Our Ed Francis outlined each of these prospects while our Dan Dukart provided his analysis of what each showcases.

In Corey Pronman's rankings for The Athletic from May 3, he had Michkov ranked third, after Bedard and Fantilli, and compared the Russian to Nikita Kucherov: 

Analysis: Michkov is one of the very best first-year draft eligibles I’ve ever seen from inside the offensive blue line. He has truly special offensive skill and hockey sense. His mind operates differently from other players in how he sees the play develop and always seems to find ways to figure into scoring chances despite not being the biggest or fastest. His mind is special, but he’s freakishly skilled with the puck too, and can make elite stickhandling plays seem routine. He can make plays at a high level, but Michkov is a finisher who will score a lot of goals as a pro. His skating is more elusive than fast and I wouldn’t call him a high-compete type either. He’s signed in the KHL through the 2025-26 season, but he projects as a game-breaking elite scoring winger in the NHL.

Michkov played across the KHL, VHL, and MHL last year and will be playing for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL next season.

On Carlsson, whom he ranked fourth and compared to Mikko Rantanen:

Analysis: Carlsson has elite skill, which when combined with his frame and a strong motor, has allowed to him to be a very good player in a great league as a draft eligible. Carlsson routinely shows the ability to beat pro defenders with skill. He gets a ton of chances in the high-percentage areas, both due to his hands and his willingness to attack the net. He’s an excellent playmaker as well with a very imaginative offensive mind who can run a pro power play and often played the flank in the SHL on the man advantage. His only drawback is a lack of true separation speed. I’ve seen worse feet on a 6-foot-3 guy, but he won’t be turning NHL defensemen around. He’s listed as a center, and has dabbled at it at the J20 level, but for the most part over the last two years I’ve seen him play wing.

For Orebro HK of the SHL, Carlsson had 25 points (10 goals, 15 assists) in 44 games. Pronman's fifth-ranked prospect is Smith, whom he compared to Evgeny Kuznetsov:

Analysis: Smith is a dynamic offensive player who stands out every game with his talent. He has tremendous puck skills, vision and overall offensive creativity and projects to be a major asset on an NHL power play. He skates well and makes so many high-difficulty plays at a strong pace, which lends well to his pro projection. Smith is a high-end passer who is also able to finish chances from the dots. The only real wart in his game is I wouldn’t call him an overly physical or high-energy player. I don’t think he lacks effort. He’s around the puck a ton whenever he’s on the ice and even at times killed penalties for the program.

Smith is committed to Boston College for the 2023-24 season after putting up 127 points (51 goals, 76 assists) in 60 games for the U.S. National U18 Team and 42 points (15 goals, 27 assists) in 20 games for the USNTDP Juniors.

The Athletic's Scott Wheeler had the same top five. In what will be among the first of many mock drafts, Pronman has the Jackets taking Smith third overall.

While most are probably still steaming about the ESPN pre-commercial snafu that all but ended Columbus' bid at the top pick when Kevin Weekes' slip told us as much, and that the consolation in landing Fantilli is all but over, one can hang their hat on the fact that this draft class is loaded. There are multiple talents in this year's draft that could be going No. 1 in any other year.

As Pronman alluded to on Monday, Michkov is more like a No. 1 talent while Carlsson and Smith are probably more typical of a No. 2 or 3 pick.

Whomever the Blue Jackets take at No. 3, they're adding an incredibly skilled forward to an already deep prospect pool.

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