As a way to familiarize you with a variety of NHL draft prospects, each month I will bring you a themed ‘Team of the Month’ for the 2023 NHL draft. Much like any all-star team, we will have three forward slots, two defenders, and a goalie who will get some love and recognition.
This month features players who will almost assuredly be knocked for being 5-foot-10 or under. These “short kings” will likely become fan favorites around the draft conversation because of their flash and flair, but they could fall down the board a bit on draft day because size still matters at the NHL level.
LW: Luca Pinelli, Ottawa 67's (OHL) – 5-foot-9
With a hot start to the season, Pinelli is one of the most interesting 2023 draft prospects in the OHL. Pinelli is skilled and agile, and he has a heavy release. The 67's forward can absolutely wire a puck from a variety of hand positions, extended out or with the puck in his feet. He can manipulate space with his ability to stay balanced and control the puck through traffic.
Pinelli has excellent on-ice vision and the passing ability to take advantage of it. He finds teammates in dangerous positions. He has the ability to draw defenders into his space and then thread the needle into the slot. The diminutive forward plays with a bit of snarl at times and isn’t afraid of battling opponents with a size advantage.
C: Connor Bedard, Regina Pats (WHL) – 5-foot-10
What is there to say that hasn’t been said about Bedard? The presumptive No. 1 pick has been an absolute menace to opposing defenses in the WHL. His ability to beat opponents with speed and skill, attack the middle, and break down his opponents at will has been more than entertaining to watch.
Bedard is undersized and some have said that his listed height is maybe even generous. That doesn’t stop him from being a dominant force in the WHL. His 10 goals and 11 assists both lead the league, giving him 21 points on the year, four more points than any other skater in western Canada. Enjoy watching him tear up junior hockey for the rest of the year because next season he will be finding the scoresheet in the NHL.
RW: Jayden Perron, Chicago Steel (USHL) – 5-foot-8
One of the most active and entertaining players in the 2023 NHL draft, Perron understands how to time his assaults into skating lanes in the offensive zone with the best player in the age range. Perron perfectly waits for passing and skating lanes through the slot or across the net front to open up, allowing him to funnel the offensive play toward high-danger areas.
Perron leads all USHL skaters in scoring, with 15 points through nine games. His slick hands in combination with his ability to shift up and down speeds allows him to use his creativity to its fullest extent. The pocket-sized striker isn’t intimidated by larger defenders, knowing that his puck skill and ability to beat his opponent is at a greater level the vast majority of the time. If he falls too far down the draft board, some team could very well be getting a massive steal from the Steel.
D: Mikhail Gulyayev, Avangard Omsk (KHL) – 5-foot-10
One of the top Russians in the 2023 draft class, Gulyayev is a lightning-quick defender who uses his mobility in all three zones. He's played games at the MHL, VHL, and KHL levels already this year. Although he has received inconsistent playing time in the KHL, including games where he was stapled to the bench, his showings at lower levels and juniors have been outstanding.
Gulyayev is a modern puck-transporting blueliner who is excellent at carrying the puck out, bursting up ice with speed. The young Russian can make a crisp breakout pass, hitting his teammates in motion. He uses his skating to defend as well, closing gaps and playing aggressively and putting his stick on the puck to disrupt play. He must continue to improve his in-zone play, but there is a place in the NHL for defenders like Gulyayev in today’s game.
D: Luca Cagnoni, Portland Winterhawks (WHL) – 5-foot-10
Another smaller mobile defenseman, Cagnoni has taken a clear step this season. The WHL defender uses his highly technical skating to build the rest of his game. Cagnoni has been clicking at a point-per-game rate at the WHL level from the blueline on a team that hasn’t lost a game thus far in the early going.
He has the tools to be a player that is constantly making the ‘flash’ play up ice, trying to be the hero of any given shift, but he plays a smarter game than that. He’s a cerebral tactician at heart and it shows in his game. Cagnoni’s skating routes are calculated and his desire to join the rush seems to be timed well, rarely leaving his teammates out to dry by pushing too deep and vacating the point or defensive position without support.
G: Noah Erliden, HV71 J20 (J20 Nationell) – 5-foot-10
The Swedish netminder is one of the youngest players eligible for the 2023 draft regardless of position, so the room for physical growth is certainly there. His numbers at just about every level have been fantastic. He was a standout at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup in the summer, but the knock on him there was that he is four inches smaller than most teams will even consider in net.
Erliden is excellent positionally, ensuring that he is square to the shooter. The young Swede moves well in his crease, showing excellent footwork around his net. He can struggle at times to close off the sides of the net when he gets into his VH and RVH technique integrating with the post, because of his size, but he is quick in and out.
There have been more undersized goaltenders finding success, including Vezina nominee Juuse Saros in Nashville, but it's still more of the exception, not the rule in net. A growth spurt of any kind would do wonders for Erliden’s draft stock because he certainly knows how to stop pucks.