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When analyzing the macro characteristics of the 2023 NHL Draft, two things jump out at Coyotes director of amateur scouting Darryl Plandowski.
“It’s a smaller group in terms of height,” Plandowski said. “The next thing is that it’s pretty forward heavy.”
The two facts may be connected. The NHL is getting faster and more skilled with each passing year. The combination of rules changes since the last lockout, better sports science and the rise of programs outside Canada such as the uber skilled USA Hockey National Team Development Program has altered the game.
That’s not to say that size doesn’t matter. GM Bill Armstrong still believes it does and he wants a certain level of heft to his forward and defensive groups. But both offense and smaller players are thriving again in the NHL, and there is a glut of smaller forwards at the top of the 2023 draft. Top prospects Connor Bedard, Will Smith, Matvei Michkov and Ryan Leonard all stand less than 6 feet.
“If you’re small and you’re really good, nobody even knows how big you are,” Plandowski said. “Nobody realizes how tall Sidney Crosby or Brayden Point or Brad Marchand is, or in the old days, Marty St. Louis. None of them are very tall, but they’re all really good.”
The Coyotes won’t get a crack at Bedard and they probably won’t get a chance to draft Smith either. The other two players’ fates are less certain, but whatever the Coyotes opt to do with the No. 6 and No. 12 overall picks, they’re confident that those selections will help the rebuild take a major step forward. And if both of those picks end up being forwards, the Coyotes are comfortable with that option.
“As it pertains to six and 12, we know we’re gonna get two real good players,” associate director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski said. “But overall, this draft might be a little bit deeper than last year’s so when we get to our next pick at 38 we’re going to get another really solid prospect. It’s a nice haul for us to get three.”
Of the Coyotes’ nine first- or second-round draft picks under Armstrong, six have been forwards. The three highest picks in Armstrong’s tenure have also been forwards (Logan Cooley, No. 3, 2022; Dylan Guenther, No. 9, 2021; Conor Geekie, No. 11, 2022). While the Coyotes have 12 picks in this year’s draft to even out the forward-to-defenseman ratio, there is no desire to reach just to add to the latter pool.
“If we can find a defenseman that we can add to it, we’ve definitely got to think about it,” Plandowski said. “But we also know that next year looks like it’s going to be a way better draft for defensemen so we can plan a year or two down the road for the pipeline, which we’ve been doing by evaluating defensemen that are still 16.
“Obviously, we’d want to get a defenseman in there somewhere, so if we take two forwards with our two first picks because of the nature of the draft, we’re going to be looking at guys that we still have left on our board that we can add to our group of defensemen.”
That said, Plandowski reiterated the longstanding philosophy of drafting the best player available. In the 2023 draft, that means that forwards will dominate the top draft slots.
The top 17 skaters in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings were all forwards, as were seven of the top 10 European skaters.
Through a combination of trades, free agency signings and their own draft position, the Coyotes have already assembled a fair amount of promising forward prospects under Armstrong. Jack McBain has already cemented a role as a bottom-six center, but here’s a look at some of the key forwards still in the pipeline.
|Player||Draft year/draft slot||Current team|
|Logan Cooley||2022, No. 3||Minnesota (NCAA)|
|Dylan Guenther||2021, No. 9||Seattle (WHL)|
|Conor Geekie||2022, No. 11||Wenatchee (WHL)|
|Josh Doan||2021, No. 37||Tucson (AHL)|
|Julian Lutz||2022, No. 43||Munich EHC (DEL)|
|Jan Jeník||2018, No. 65||Tucson (AHL)|
|Miko Matikka||2022, No. 67||Waterloo (USHL)|
|Miloš Kelemen||2022, signed as free agent||Tucson (AHL)|
|Nathan Smith||*2018, No. 91||Tucson (AHL)|
|Aku Räty||2019, No. 151||Ilves (SM-liiga)|
|Ben McCartney||2020, No. 204||Tucson (AHL)|
|Sam Lipkin||2021, No. 223||Quinnipiac (NCAA)|
There has been plenty of speculation about what the Coyotes might do with their first-round picks. Plandowski and Armstrong both acknowledged that there is an organizational approach and philosophy depending on the draft slot.
“We have guidelines as a staff that we work with; what we expect at that level of picking,” Armstrong said. “There’s different ranges in the draft. We stick to those standards in different ranges. We don’t veer from them.”
When asked if he could provide any insights on those standards, however, Armstrong didn’t hesitate in his response.
“Not a fucking one,” he said, laughing heartily.
The NHL Draft is one week away. It’s cloak and dagger time.
Top photo via Getty Images: Draft prospect Ryan Leonard performs the force plate vertical jump during the 2023 NHL Scouting Combine at the LECOM Harborcenter on June 10 in Buffalo.
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