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2023 NHL prospects Bedard, Fantilli et al. making noise three years early

Intrigue surrounding the 2023 NHL draft is already picking up as one player has been granted exceptional status in the WHL, two are awaiting the results of their applications and the projected top OHL draft selection has decided to head to the USHL.
Dave Watling photography

Dave Watling photography

Let’s face it, the present and immediate future look pretty grim these days. So let’s all do like Fleetwood Mac and Don’t Stop (Thinkin’ About Tomorrow). And by tomorrow, we mean the 2023 NHL draft, which is shaping up to be not only outstanding, but incredibly intriguing as well.

By now, you’ve probably heard that Connor Bedard, an offensive dynamo from North Vancouver, was granted exceptional status by Hockey B.C., which makes him eligible to play in the Western League next season as a 15-year-old. (He doesn’t turn 15 until July, if you can believe it.) This is a really, really big deal. Bedard is the first player from B.C. to be granted that status. To give you an idea of what kind of potential Bedard has, consider that both Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Mathew Barzal applied for exceptional status and were denied in the home province.

Playing with and against players up to three years older, Bedard led all scorers in the Midget Prep Division of the Canadian Sports School Hockey League this season with 43 goals and 84 points in just 36 games. And even though he’s still on the small side, he has filled out to 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds. From a skill standpoint, however, there’s no doubt he’s ready to play in the WHL. He already has a wrist shot that has been likened to fellow B.C. native Joe Sakic’s and his skill level is off the charts.

But wait, there’s more. Three players applied for exceptional status for the WHL this season and both Brayden Yager and Riley Heidt are still waiting to hear from the Saskatchewan Hockey Association about the results of their applications for exceptional status. If one or both are approved, it should make for interesting times when the WHL holds its bantam draft April 22. The Regina Pats will pick first and the Prince George Cougars second. There are some WHL scouts who believe that if both Yager and Bedard were eligible to play next season, there are teams that would take Yager first overall. The interesting thing about Yager and Heidt is that both hail from the tiny hamlet of Dundurn, Sask., (pop. 647), which is about 30 miles south of Saskatoon, and were teammates on the Saskatoon Contacts midget team this season.

And then there’s Adam Fantilli, another player eligible for the NHL draft in 2023 who recently committed to play next season alongside his older brother, Luca, for the Chicago Steel of the USHL next season, despite the fact he is the top prospect for the OHL draft. That means Adam Fantilli, who is a December birthday, could play a year in the USHL, and since he’s fast-tracking through high school, would be eligible to play two years of college hockey or in the OHL before being drafted in 2023.

The North Bay Battalion hold the first overall pick in the draft and now face a vexing decision. Do they draft Fantilli first overall in the hopes that he plays for them in 2021-22, but with no guarantees that he’ll ever play there? The Fantilli family has been upfront with the Battalion about its plans and has already told the team that it is not playing draft games to end up at a pre-determined destination.

“We’ve said from the beginning we weren’t going to do any of those shenanigans,” said Adam’s father Guiliano. “That’s not who we are at all.”

This past season, Adam eschewed the opportunity to play for the Toronto Jr. Canadiens, one of the top midget teams in the country, and instead decided to play with his older brother at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H., where he scored 18 goals and 36 points playing for the varsity team. The plan is for both brothers to play in Chicago next season, then once Adam finishes high school, he’ll have the choice of playing either college hockey or in the OHL. The Fantillis have told the Battalion that if Adam decides to go the OHL route, he would be happy to report to North Bay to start the 2021-22 season, but there are no guarantees. Luca has made a commitment to the University of Michigan, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Adam will play there with his brother.

“Luca has wanted to play for Michigan since he was a little kid, but Adam is different, he likes the OHL and he likes the NCAA,” Guiliano said. “He doesn’t know what he wants to do yet. He’ll take this year to develop in Chicago and play with his brother. North Bay had an awesome presentation, but it just wasn’t the right fit for (2020-21). It doesn’t mean it won’t be next year. We told them, ‘We’re not going to play for anybody else. It’s not a North Bay thing. It’s just we’re not ready right now.’ ”

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