When the Columbus Blue Jackets pick third in the upcoming draft, they'll have their pick of a handful of top prospects. After President Of Hockey Ops John Davidson admitted that the organization will be taking a center, the pick will likely come down to one of Leo Carlsson, Will Smith, and, though it's unlikely, Adam Fantilli.
All three of those prospects bring different elements and profiles, and while the franchise is surely disappointed to be missing out on Connor Bedard, the reality is they'll be adding a player that will instantly become their top prospect to an already-stocked cupboard. With that in mind, here's our first installment of a deep dive into the three prospects. Up first is Carlsson.
While virtually all of the other top prospects have dominated their peers, Carlsson has excelled against men in Sweden's top professional league, where he's played for Örebro HK for the past two seasons. This season, the 18-year-old posted 10-15-25 in 45 regular season games, then added 1-8-9 in 13 postseason games. His game oozes maturity, and his 6'3" frame allows him to compete against players much older than him. He's still wiry, but listed at 194 lbs., he's far from meek.
The left-shot forward plays primarily center for Sweden in international events but was mostly sheltered on the wing in the SHL. He's been compared to Washington Capitals star forward Nick Backstrom, but honestly, I think that's because they're both Swedish and lanky left-handed shooters. I see shades of Backstrom, but he reminds me more of Mikko Rantanen, especially when the latter was a draft-eligible player, in that he's a long, dual-threat forward who isn't a physical force but isn't a perimeter player, either. Some combination probably isn't a bad thing, if he meets either projection. Right now, he's competing for Sweden at the World Championships, and he's the youngest player ever to suit up for 'Tre Kronor' at the event. As the tournament started, he was listed as the team's 1C, and he became the youngest player to score for Sweden at the tournament in their history.
Carlsson doesn't have any glaring holes in his game, and that's part of his allure. His shot isn't anywhere near the asset of a player like Bedard, and I don't think he'll be a top-end scorer in the NHL. Instead, I imagine him being somewhere closer to Kent Johnson, a guy who can score with his shot, but it's not necessarily his calling card. He got out-muscled and out-maneuvered at times in the SHL, but that's to be expected playing against players who are, well, men.
While basically any organization will say that they don't draft for position and instead always draft best-player-available, part of me wonders if Carlsson is almost too closely related to Johnson for the Blue Jackets' liking. Both are wing/center lanky left-shot forwards with skill for days. The biggest differences would be that Johnson is flashier, and Carlsson is a bit more complete and plays a very heady game, and has a bit more reach. In both cases, the skating is good, not elite. Does Carlsson have the pace to be a 1C?
Like Johnson (and Backstrom and Rantanen, for that matter), Carlsson projects as a power-play flank player. He did a ton of damage on the right face-off dot, where he can utilize his dual-threat capabilities to pass through a seam, either through the slot or back door, or shoot. While his shot isn't elite, it's good enough to beat goalies cleanly when he's given time and space.
It's easy to appreciate the maturity in his game. He does a lot of little things that coaches love, like stopping at the net and being on the right side of the puck in a defensive posture. And he shows a great understanding of patterns, seeming to arrive at the net at the exact right time for an easy tap-in.
Carlsson's floor as an NHL player is almost so high that it's hard to imagine him not being a second-line center or better. Conversely, he doesn't have the mind-blowing skill that screams future All-Star. I think he can get there, but it may take some time.
Carlsson's most impressive trait to me is his understanding of offensive zone play. He constantly finds teammates in dangerous areas and improves the condition of the puck with amazing consistency.
All of these videos are from calendar year 2023. Carlsson is simply a productive and responsible player that comes as advertised. While he may lack the flash of someone like a Bedard, he projects as a top-line forward, and any NHL team would be happy to have someone like this in their organization.