The Anaheim Ducks turned heads when they selected Leo Carlsson with the second overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft. Adam Fantilli, selected one pick later at third overall, was the presumptive name that Anaheim general manager Pat Verbeek would call to the stage. Instead, the Ducks zigged where many thought they would zag, but are no worse off for it: Carlsson has every bit the potential to be a franchise-altering centerpiece.
The (No) Fantilli Surprise
Fantilli fit the Verbeek archetype to a tee: a big, physical, and ultra-competitive center with a bit of a mean streak. A Nathan MacKinnon type. Verbeek has alluded to his club’s lack of competitiveness and physicality on numerous occasions. Factor in that Fantilli was only the third freshman to ever win the Hobey Baker award, and it felt all but certain that the University of Michigan man would be donning an Anaheim Ducks sweater on draft night.
The writing on the wall told a different story. First, reports that there were legitimate “Carlsson vs. Fantilli” debates and conversations around the league began to bubble to the surface. Then, in the days leading up to the draft, reports that the Ducks would select Carlsson only intensified. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman, whose mock drafts have proven to accurately reflect the pulse of the league, even mocked Carlsson to the Ducks on the morning of the draft. Despite all of that, it still felt impossible to ignore the feeling that Fantilli would be the pick.
Not so much. For all the noise surrounding the Ducks’ pick, one discussion on the 32 Thoughts podcast by Jeff Marek proved to be true: Verbeek isn’t afraid to go against conventional wisdom. Fantilli’s on-ice profile would have been a glove-like fit into Anaheim’s system. He would have very likely played in Anaheim next season. If nothing else, Fantilli was the true “safe” pick, to the extent that any pick is safe. Verbeek went in the other direction.
A video re-surfaced of Fantilli expressing a desire to play for Columbus in an interview months before the draft, and ultimately, he got his wish. A vocal contingent of Ducks fans expressed their outrage at the pick on social media, but there’s an excellent chance Carlsson makes the backlash seem foolish in the not-so-distant future.
Believe The (Leo) Hype
Leo Carlsson isn’t Adam Fantilli, and he never will be. That’s perfectly fine: he could be even better. On the ice, Fantilli breaks the door down to catch observers’ attention, while Carlsson does so with a slower simmer. Off the ice, Fantilli is gregarious and bold, as his pre-draft Columbus comments indicated.
Conversely, Carlsson is softer spoken, but carries a quiet confidence about him. How many NHL prospects wear Nike Dunks on draft night? Despite a stutter, he impressively has a calm about him behind microphones and facing cameras. Don’t let the classic Swedish cool deceive you, though: Carlsson is a killer on the ice.
The Orebro forward notched 25 points for his club last season, joining a list featuring the Sedin twins, Peter Forsberg, Nicklas Backstrom and Markus Naslund of 18-year old’s to have scored 25 or more points in the Swedish Hockey League. It’s no freshmen year Hobey Baker, sure, but that’s damn good company to be keeping. To boot, Carlsson did so while playing on the wing, despite being a natural center.
Carlsson is a cerebral force on the ice. Ducks’ assistant general manager Martin Madden cited his hockey sense as a driving factor in making the selection. There’s much more to his game, but his sense is a rock-solid foundation to build on. The available numbers bear that out: draft analyst Lassi Alanen’s tracked data shows a complete player who influences the game in all three zones:
The newly-minted Duck excels in nearly every measurable area of the game. He enters the offensive zone with control of the puck at a high rate, sets up his teammates often in dangerous areas, and wins pucks off the boards in the offensive zone and gets them into the middle of the ice. His defensive awareness and involvement has also been touted by the scouting community. For as much as Carlsson’s hockey sense has been lauded, it would be impossible to have the season he did without some elite physical tools, and he possesses those in spades.
Carlsson is 6′ 3″, 198 pounds and has a reach that gives opponents fits. Despite his frame not being filled out yet, he had the strength to excel at protecting the puck against men in the SHL. He’s able to weave through traffic both off the rush and along the wall thanks to his dexterous stickhandling ability. The shot stands to improve, but already has a power and precision to it that should translate at the NHL level.
The Upside Play
The hang up surrounding Carlsson’s game will always point to the feet. Simply put, the skating isn’t elite. The posture can be too upright, and the strides too short and lacking explosion. Where you land on Carlsson’s skating often dictates your opinion of the player. Yet the pushback has almost gone too far. Despite a lack of speed, the agility and edgework for a player that size is impressive. Carlsson isn’t slow, per se, but the first few steps are. Once the engine has revved up, the overall speed looks much better. He’s owned up to it publicly, citing a need to improve his first three steps.
Therein lies the wonder with Carlsson: he’s already this good, but he can get so much better. His frame might be closer to maturity, but that’s not the question here. Should he improve his skating, whether it be his first step, his agility, or his stride extension, there’s an absolutely elite player to be unlocked. Should it improve only moderately? He’s already shown what he can do in a professional league, and shined at center against men at the World Championships. At a minimum, he’s a top-of-the-lineup player.
Despite being panned as a “safe” pick on draft night, the Ducks swung for upside by picking Carlsson. Pat Verbeek and Madden are making a bet that they can maximize Carlsson’s game. For that reason, it would be surprising to see him full-time in the NHL right away. Not that he isn’t capable, but instead that there’s surely a desire to maximize his development arc. The NHL isn’t exactly a development league.
Whether that lands Carlsson back in the SHL, or perhaps under the tutelage of Matt McIlvane down in San Diego is an open question. Verbeek even raised the possibility of him playing in major junior, which would be fascinating. Whichever of those options ends up coming to fruition, the mission will be the same for the Ducks: ensure that Carlsson ends up being the player they believe he can be.
If their big swing pay off, Anaheim could be looking at an elite number one center to jolt a lineup already featuring the likes of Trevor Zegras, Mason McTavish, and eventually Olen Zellweger. That should be a terrifying possibility for the rest of the league.