Leo Carlsson emerging as fourth elite option for Blackhawks in 2023 NHL draft

Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli and Matvei Michkov were already considered the can’t-go-wrong top three. But Carlsson’s breakthrough gives the Hawks insurance if they finish second-to-last in the NHL this season and lose both draft lotteries.

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Swedish forward Leo Carlsson passes the puck.

Swedish forward Leo Carlsson will be one of the top prospects on display at the World Junior Championships, which began Monday.

AP Photos

Critics of the Blackhawks’ tanking plan have pointed out that finishing last in the NHL comes with only a 25.5% chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick.

The counterargument is that finishing last guarantees a top-three overall pick. The last-place team has an 18.8% chance of getting the No. 2 pick and a 55.7% chance of dropping to third, but it can fall no further.

And entering the season, with the 2023 draft featuring three elite prospects — forwards Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli and Matvei Michkov — boasting the talent to be No. 1 picks in less-stacked years, a guaranteed top-three pick looked quite enticing.

It still does. But the emergence of forward Leo Carlsson as a fourth elite prospect in the draft makes the tanking plan look even more foolproof. Now, even finishing second-to-last — which guarantees a top-four pick — should lead to significant long-term gain.

And considering the Ducks (22 points in 35 games, equaling a .314 points percentage) and Blue Jackets (22 points in 32 games, .333 points percentage) have looked almost as pathetic as the Hawks (20 points in 32 games, .313 points percentage) in the race for last, that shift is reassuring.

Those three teams — and, realistically, all 32 NHL franchises — will be paying close attention to the 2023 world junior championships in the next two weeks.

The tournament, which began Monday and runs through Jan. 5 in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, features Bedard, Fantilli and Carlsson. It’s the most prominent setting within which to compare them to one another before the NHL combine in May.

Connor Bedard shoots the puck.

Canadian forward Connor Bedard is the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NHL draft.

AP Photos

Bedard long has been the consensus No. 1 prospect and might be the most acclaimed draft prospect since Auston Matthews in 2016. His shot is a particular strength, but all his offensive skills top the charts.

He has 64 points in 28 games for an otherwise-mediocre Regina Pats team, leading all Canadian juniors as a 17-year-old, and had eight points in seven games for Canada during the rescheduled 2022 world juniors last summer.

Fantilli, however, has been so good in his own right that he has an outside shot to challenge Bedard for No. 1 overall and almost certainly will land in the top two.

He’s 4 inches taller than Bedard and plays a sturdier game, but he also offers the elite offensive explosiveness to be a first-line NHL center. He has 26 points in 16 games at the University of Michigan, ranking third in the NCAA as a freshman.

Michkov is the wild card of the group. He’s absent from the tournament because Russia is banned, and that’s not the only complication created by his nationality.

His stat line — 14 points in 12 games — appears unremarkable because he’s playing for SKA St. Petersburg’s minor-league affiliate against pro competition. He also is signed with SKA through 2026 and might not come to North America until then. Michkov is comparable to Bedard and Fantilli based on talent alone, but there are outside concerns.

That’s why Carlsson’s sudden breakthrough is so beneficial to the Hawks. He has burst onto the scene by producing at a top-six level in Sweden’s top pro league — he has 14 points in 25 games for Orebro — despite only turning 18 on Monday.

Carlsson will be on full display as one of Sweden’s best players at the world juniors. He notched two points in a tournament-opening rout Monday of Austria, and his 6-3, 200-pound frame, relentlessness and intelligence make projecting his NHL upside straightforward.

There’s much less agreement on rankings beyond the top four, but if the rest of the Hawks’ season goes as planned, they shouldn’t need to worry much about that. It seems hard to go wrong among Bedard, Fantilli, Michkov and Carlsson.

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