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2023 NHL Draft: The case for Leo Carlsson

The San Jose Sharks have a serious decision to make in just a few weeks. With the number four pick in this year’s draft, management has the ability to take a bonafide top line forward. We’re talking about a future star of the NHL.

In most draft years, that’s not an option. But 2023 is loaded with talent, and it trickles all the way down to number four. What San Jose does with the pick will obviously depend on the three teams that draft before the Sharks. We’re assuming that Connor Bedard goes first overall, with Adam Fantilli at a close second.

However, those two players are the only clear cut top picks. At third overall, Columbus has some grade A options, all with phenomenal upsides and slight downsides.

For Fear the Fin’s money, there’s only three players the Sharks should consider at number four. Columbis will likely take one of them, but that’s two others to choose from. In a previous post, we looked at Matvei Michkov’s potential upsides and downsides. Now, it’s time to examine Leo Carlsson.

Leo Carlsson, C/W – Orebro HK, SHL

Height: 6-foot-3
Weight: 194 lbs.
Age/DOB: 18, Dec. 26, 2004
Shoots: Left
2022-23 Orebro HK (SHL): 44 games, 25 points (10 G, 15 A)
2022-23 Orebro HK (SHL) Playoffs: 13 games, 9 points (1 G, 8 A)
2022-23 Sweden U20 WJC-20: 7 games, 6 points (3 G, 3 A)
2022-23 Sweden U20 (all) International-Jr: 13 games, 17 points (10 G, 7 A)
2022-23 Sweden WC: 8 games, 5 points (3 G, 2 A)
2022-23 Sweden (all) International: 15 games, 11 points (3 G, 8 A)

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The scouting reports

Carlsson’s size is one of the first things that stands out for many hockey teams. The 18-year-old is 6-foot-3 and 194 pounds. That’s a big body perfect for forechecking, but it can also hinder a player in the mobility department. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman says that may be the only drawback to Carlsson’s game.

“Carlsson has elite skill, which when combined with his frame and a strong motor, has allowed him to be a very good player in a great league as a draft eligible,” wrote Pronman. “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 mostly played wing the last two years but has enough experience at center and the traits to play the middle that I could see him become a legit No. 1 center in the NHL with star upside.”

FloHockey’s Chris Peters tells Sheng Peng of NBC Sports Bay Area that Carlsson’s size won’t hurt his mobility. In Peters’ mind, Carlsson’s best NHL comparable is Mikko Rantanen.

“It’s just the size-skill combo…You look at a guy like Mikko Rantanen, players like that, that have size and skill, they can make a pretty significant impact,” said Peters. “I think that’s what teams are looking at with Leo Carlsson, it’s that size-skill combo, on top of hockey sense being another standout trait for him.”

Hockey IQ is another highlight of Carlsson’s game, which, according to Elite Prospects, helps Carlsson in both the offensive and defensive zone.

“The foundation on which his game rests is his sense. Carlsson’s ability to register gaps in defensive coverage, recognize passing options, keep pace with offensive and defensive rotations, and manipulate opponents to his whims makes him a constant threat,” wrote Elite Prospects. “He’s not afraid to drive the inside, either. Carlsson practically lives there at times, working a high off-puck pace and a willingness to doll out and take physical punishment to get around the goalmouth, where all the fun stuff happens.”

Meanwhile, Josh Tessler of Smaht Scouting highlights Carlsson’s ability to drive play into the offensive zone.

“Carlsson is highly effective at mop up duty (loose puck recovery). He grabs onto loose pucks should his wingers struggle (in situations in which he wasn’t in position to provide an outlet lane) with capturing the puck during a tight battle,” wrote Tessler. “Carlsson is a very tactical passer. If he has a tight lane and a teammate in view, he will take the lane and take it quickly. Carlsson is very good at distribution in tight lanes when pressure closes in on him as he looks to skate out of his own zone with the puck. He can shift the puck from forehand to backhand to secure the puck once the attack moves in tight and then he will complete a backhand saucer feed to a teammate in the neutral zone.”

The case against Carlsson

It’s clear that there are very few holes in Carlsson’s game. Not only does he play well offensively, but he is responsible defensively. While he’s not the best skater in the bunch, he has a big body that can more than make up for his lack of speed.

So, why shouldn’t the Sharks pick him at number four?

For one thing, The Athletic says Carlsson’s closest comparable is Tomas Hertl. Don’t get me wrong. I love watching Hertl play. But do the Sharks really need another Ninja Hertl? Hertl will still be on the team during Carlsson’s prime, and Hertl’s contract isn’t exactly the easiest to move. Do the Sharks need to double down?

Last Word on Sports has another Carlsson comparable, Nicklas Backstrom.

“Based on style only, and not an indicator of what to expect, who does Carlsson project to play like? A name that comes to mind is Nicklas Backstrom,” wrote Last Word on Sports. “Backstrom had a strong playmaking ability, was solid defensively, and was excellent transitionally. To show that even further, Backstrom, from 2013-14 through to 2015-16, was in the 83rd percentile for NHL forwards for defensive impact, per Evolving-Hockey. As for transitional stats, from 2016-17 through to 2019-20, he was in the 94th percentile of forwards in controlled exits, and 86th percentile for entries.”

The Sharks have always been good at finding distributors. Guys like Joe Thornton, who can dish the puck and put players in a situation to score when it looks like there’s nothing there. The problem is, San Jose has trouble finding finishers. How is it that in Thornton’s prime, the Sharks only had one Rocket Richard winner and no other true contenders?

Goals win games. Carlsson is not Thornton, but if the Sharks draft Carlsson, would fans spend another ten-plus years watching another great talent never win a Stanley Cup because no one can score when he gets the puck on their stick?

Finally, is Carlsson a center or a winger? The teen is listed as both, but as Smaht Scouting reports defining his role could help hone portions of Carlsson’s game.

“Carlsson’s forechecking is an area of his game that has extremely good promise, but is still in development. Carlsson’s position will be shifted throughout games. There are some shifts in which he seems to be used as a center and some shifts in which he is being used on the wing,” wrote Tessler. “Since he is flipping back and forth, he seems to be a little unsure of what his role is supposed to be on the forecheck. He isn’t sure if he is supposed to be an outlet option should one of his teammates win possession of the puck in a loose puck battle or if he should be the one laying down checks behind the red line in loose puck battles.”

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The case for Carlsson

All of the issues listed above are minor problems. They’re things that can either be worked out or simply don’t matter since Carlsson still has the potential to become an NHL star. Carlsson might go first overall in any other season where Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli are unavailable.

As it is, this year’s Stanley Cup winner Jack Eichel has proven that going number two to a future NHL hall of famer like Connor McDavid doesn’t mean you’ll miss out on a Stanley Cup. Notice that Eichel has one cup to McDavid’s zero.

But back to Carlsson. Of the three elite players presumably available – Matvei Michkov, Will Smith and Carlsson – Carlsson is the biggest body. He’s has three inches on Smith and a few more than that on Michkov. As we know, Sharks’ General Manager Mike Grier is looking for big bodies that forecheck. Carlsson is exactly that.

Not only does Carlsson have the size and skill, but he’s also extremely intelligent on the ice. He reads the game at a high level and that helps him make split-second decisions to drive the play. A high Hockey IQ is essential when playing a game as fast as the one played at the NHL level.

And the X-factor in all of this is that Carlsson is already familiar with another Sharks’ prospect, Filip Bystedt. Bystedt (drafted in 2022 by the Sharks) played for Sweden alongside Carlsson at the World Juniors. The two looked like they had chemistry which could translate into chemistry with the Sharks in just a few years.


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