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2023 NHL DRAFT: EARLY SEASON FAVOURITES SERIES WITH VIDEO – WEST – Carson Bjarnason, Kalan Lind, and Grayden Siepmann

First Round Favourite: Carson Bjarnason, G, Brandon Wheat Kings

Carson Bjarnason. Photo by Jarret Gale.

There are few prospects eligible for the 2023 NHL draft who have seen their stock skyrocket since the start of the season as much as Carson Bjarnason has. Not only has the 17-year-old netminder been the undisputed MVP of his Brandon Wheat Kings team thus far, he has also been one of the best goalies in all of junior hockey.

Bjarnason wasn't exactly an unknown commodity beforehand. The Carberry, Manitoba, native suited up for 23 games for the Wheaties last season, and also made Canada's roster for the 2022 Hlinka Gretzky Cup as their backup goalie, winning the only game he started as part of the gold medal-winning roster. While he flashed traces of upside previously, it was clear that there was still a lot of work that he needed to do before he could be considered a top prospect.

Fast forward a few months and it's truly impressive just how much of that work he has already accomplished, and how quickly he is improving overall.

Bjarnason checks off almost all of the main boxes that scouts look for in a goaltender. He's big, he's athletic, he's technically sound, and his mental game is quite strong. Put all those pieces together and you get a goalie who can steal games for his team and look very comfortable and methodical in the process.

This first sequence shows Bjarnason at his best. He starts by staring down this rush from Andrew Cristall of the Kelowna Rockets, one of the most dangerous players in the WHL right now. Cristall tries to go backhand but has nothing to shoot at, as the goalie is in prime position and has his holes closed off through textbook form. The rebound dribbles loose and is quickly passed by the first trailing Kelowna forward right to the stick of the second trailing forward in the home-plate area, but Bjarnason immediately resets in his stance, pushes cleanly back to the middle, and drops back to his knees to gobble up the second shot, but this time with no rebound.

Here is another example of Bjarnason being highly effective but making it look easy. Matt Savoie gets around a Brandon defender and creates a shot from in tight but has absolutely nowhere to go with it, as Bjarnason is completely square to the shot. He also has his skate anchored to his right post, preventing himself (and the puck) from getting pushed into the net if Savoie forces the issue.

While Bjarnason isn't the fastest or most limber goalie, he has no trouble going post to post to challenge cross-ice scoring chances. Make note of how active his feet are in this clip, keeping himself ready for both a shot and a pass when the puck comes into the circle. The Rockets player chooses pass, but Bjarnason reacts reflexively and robs Cristall again, while also keeping the puck from squeaking out for a rebound.

Bjarnason displays incredible composure and focus for a goaltender his age, especially with the added responsibility of being his team's starter and having to face quality scoring chances and a high volume of shots playing behind a young roster. It's not uncommon for him to face more than 30 shots per contest, and neither the quality nor the quantity seems to faze him. Having to go toe to toe with a dangerous Conor Geekie on a lengthy breakaway? No problem. Geekie elects to go to his backhand, but the bottom of the ice is sealed off and the chance is emphatically turned aside. That's a big-time save

Pushing for the Top 50: Kalan Lind, C/RW, Red Deer Rebels

Kalan Lind. Photo by Rob Wallator.

Trying to get a confident assessment of Lind is tricky, as he has worn many different hats and looked like a very different player at various points throughout the past two years. After scoring 20 goals in 61 games as a 16-year-old WHL rookie last season, he has just two goals in 19 contests thus far. After looking great for Canada and helping them win gold at this past summer's Hlinka Gretzky Cup as a Bottom 6 defensive center and key penalty killer, he has been used primarily as an offense-first winger in Red Deer, including significantly more time on the powerplay than on the penalty kill.

However, when looking at all of this from a different angle, it highlights Lind's strongest attribute and what will surely be his main calling card as a potential NHLer: his versatility. While most NHL roster spots are taken up by players who excel at specific things or fit neatly into certain roles, there will always be jobs to be had for “plug and play” guys, players who can seamlessly move up or down a lineup, or transition into different roles or positions if injuries occur or if a coach wants to shake up his lines.

Lind is at his very best when he keeps his engine revved high and is playing a professional style of blue-collar hockey, which is, coincidentally, exactly how the Rebels have been built and are coached to play. This shift highlights him at his very best, making an impact on the ice in a variety of different ways, even if it doesn't result in a goal. He lays a heavy hit in the defensive zone, goes in hard on the forecheck to apply pressure and send another hit, and then finally uses up the last of his gas by transitioning the puck out of his zone, beating a defender one on one and getting a backhand shot on net.

Lind isn't the fastest or most physical player right now, but he's not yet fully developed physically. He's only listed at 155 pounds on the WHL website, which seems almost comically low, especially given his penchant for laying the body. However, when you watch him closely you can see the athletic foundation that is in place, and can start to envision just how much more speed and power he is going to generate once he's able to add more functional muscle into his frame. Here is another nice rush of his, this one from the Hlinka, attacking a Finnish defender head on and putting the puck through his triangle, before showing nice patience to beat the second defender and feeding the puck to a trailing teammate for a prime scoring chance.

It's a real shame that he's not killing more penalties for the Rebels right now, because that's going to be a necessary skill that he needs to bring at the professional level, as he doesn't possess enough pure skill to make it based solely on his offensive abilities. Luckily, scouts did get to watch that side of his game on full display during the high stakes of the Hlinka, and the results were encouraging. Watch how he plays through the pain of blocking a shot on the penalty kill during the gold medal game against Sweden, staying involved in the play and eventually prying the puck away from an opposing player, which leads to a zone clear.

While there's no doubt that Lind has some amount of NHL upside and is drawing his fair share of attention from team scouts in the lead-up to the 2023 draft, just how high he gets picked will likely depend on how much progress he makes this season on the offensive side of his game, as it is currently a bit of a question mark with him. His point totals thus far aren't exactly inspiring, and he needs to become a lot more reliable with his puck management. Watch how this turnover unfolds, as he has the extra time and space of a powerplay to work with, but tries and fails to beat Jagger Firkus one-on-one, instead of trying to draw the penalty killer toward him and feeding the puck laterally to his wide open teammate.

Here is another example of Lind's puck management and how it needs to get better. He gets a little too focused on heading north with the puck that he doesn't shoulder check or otherwise recognize just how close the backcheck pressure is behind him, leading to him getting pickpocketed. Learning to put his head on a swivel more often and better recognize peripheral activity will go a long way toward his overall effectiveness.

Notable Mid Round Candidate: Grayden Siepmann, D, Calgary Hitmen

Grayden Siepmann. Photo by Brian Liesse.

Siepmann was one of the more surprising omissions from the 2022 NHL draft, after playing his way up to the Hitmen's top defensive pairing and then making an appearance with Canada at the IIHF U18s. That said, prospect development is a marathon, not a sprint, and it's safe to say that he has used the sting of not getting picked to light a fire under himself and take notable strides as a player, putting him right back in the attention of scouts.

One of the knocks on Siepmann last year was a tendency towards passive, lackadaisical play, which was frustrating to watch at times because he is a magnificent skater. He never seemed to take full advantage of his strongest attribute to be a serious play-driver difference-maker. That criticism must have eventually found its way to him at some point, however, because he has become a significantly more engaged and assertive player than he was previously. He is taking advantage of many more opportunities to activate in transition, and as a result he has been consistently driving play up the ice for his team and putting up numbers on the score sheet, averaging just over a point per game thus far.

Whether with the puck or without, his quickness and agility navigating up ice are creating odd-man rushes and spreading out opposing defenses. He starts this clip off by carrying the puck for a zone exit, but the real genius is how he then passes it off and heads directly to the Swift Current net without it, which draws the attention of a Broncos defender, freeing up a wide-open shot for a teammate in a high-danger area.

Siepmann doesn't have to rely solely on his feet to move the puck, either. He does a very good job of keeping his head up and his senses on high alert, processing the play as it unfolds around him, and he is adept at making tape-to-tape passes across long distances. Watch here how he correctly identifies a teammate who has some space and is looking to break into the offensive zone, before sending a perfect pass that leads to a breakaway goal.

Another reason that likely hurt his draft stock last season is his size, as not only does he stand about 5-foot-10, but he’s also pretty light and scrawny, and it doesn't look like there is a whole ton of room left on his frame that can be filled out over time. While that is an undeniable disadvantage to a degree, he is still able to use his skating and conditioning to be an effective defender. Players don't always need to overpower speedy forwards when defending the rush in the NHL, they primarily just need to stick with them and disrupt them. The more Siepmann continues to learn how to maximize his skating to minimize the weaknesses of his stature and strength, the better it bodes for his future at the upper levels of hockey.