2022 Michigan vs Lake Superior State - Men's

2023 NHL Draft: Adam Fantilli Is No Consolation Prize

2023 NHL Draft: Adam Fantilli Is No Consolation Prize

University of Michigan freshman Adam Fantilli is off to a strong start to his season, reminding everyone of his top-prospect status for 2023.

Oct 21, 2022 by Chris Peters
2023 NHL Draft: Adam Fantilli Is No Consolation Prize

The first name that comes up when you talk about 2023 NHL Draft is invariably Connor Bedard. He’s the subject of many fan-invented hashtags promoting the tanking efforts of their favorite NHL teams. With the way this draft year is setting up, the GMs of those particular teams are also not so secretly watching the bottom of the league standings with rabid interest.

As Bedard gets all the hype he duly deserves while floundering NHL teams are hoping their misfortune leads to a franchise-altering windfall at the draft lottery, those same teams are keenly aware that they don’t have to put all their chips in the Bedard basket this season. Even if the teams at the bottom of the NHL standings don’t have the lottery balls bounce their way, the 2023 NHL Draft can still provide that franchise-altering, cornerstone player that will make the pain of a lost season a lot more manageable. 

The two players that get the status of being the primary “consolation prizes” should a team lose out on the No. 1 pick are Russian goal-scoring sensation Matvei Michkov and hulking center Adam Fantilli, a freshman at the University of Michigan. Big Swedish forward Leo Carlsson is also trending into the discussion with his strong start in the Swedish Hockey League.

It’s been Fantilli who has appeared to have built a stronger inside track to that No. 2 spot at the present. He has so many of the tools teams covet in a center on top of the frame he already boasts. You can even find a few scouts bold enough to suggest Fantilli’s a bigger threat to Bedard than public consensus would suggest even if that may yet be a minority opinion. 

As for Fantilli himself, he's certainly not playing this season to be the No. 2 pick. He told TSN at the end of summer that he felt he could challenge Bedard and that his goal was to go No. 1.

Fantilli is letting his play do the rest of the talking at this early stage of the collegiate season. Through Michigan’s first four games, Fantilli has eight points including seven assists, which leads the NCAA at this early stage of the season. 

The Wolverines and Fantilli travel to Lake Superior State this weekend where they'll take on the Lakers in NCAA non-conference action Friday and Saturday night, streaming exclusively on FloHockey.

The eight points Fantilli has started the season with match the total Jack Eichel collected during his first four collegiate games during the 2014-15 season. Eichel went on to put up 71 points for Boston University that season, marking the best season by a first-year draft-eligible freshman since Paul Kariya had 100 points in 1992-93. Eichel, of course, ended up going second overall behind Connor McDavid in a 2015 NHL Draft year where multiple teams tanked their hardest for a shot at McDavid and felt like even the No. 2 pick would significantly upgrade their franchise. 

In hindsight, the gap between McDavid and the rest of the field was even bigger than we knew then. I don’t know that the gap between Bedard and his primary challengers is as wide, which makes Fantilli’s positioning for this season especially interesting.

At 6-foot-2 and closing in on 200 pounds, Fantilli is a completely different player than Bedard. They get their offense differently and are able to play divergent styles with Fantilli’s physical edge and strength being a clear advantage for him over many other players in this class and especially the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Bedard.

Given the production Fantilli has shown early on, the expectations are only getting higher for his NHL outlook in the long-term and how impactful he can be as a college freshman in the short-term. An Eichel-like season is not out of the realm of possibility because we’ve already seen Fantilli dominate at every other level he’s been at, particularly last season in the USHL.

With the Chicago Steel in 2021-22, Fantilli put up 74 points in 54 games. That tied him with Kyle Connor for the most points by a player in their draft-minus-one season in USHL history. Meanwhile, Fantilli averaged 0.05 points per game higher than Connor did. Connor, coincidentally, followed up an impressive USHL career by producing 71 points as a freshman for the University of Michigan as a draft-plus-one freshman, matching Eichel's raw point output. Now Connor is one of the best scoring threats in the NHL, coming off of a 47-goal season with the Winnipeg Jets. So Fantilli has put himself in some remarkable company early in his career.

There’s a long season to go and anything can happen, but Fantilli has shown he has no intention of being anyone’s consolation prize. While he’ll continue to push Bedard and compete with the likes of Michkov and Carlsson to maintain his status as no worse than a top-two pick, he has a chance to do something special at the collegiate level. After celebrating his 18th birthday two weeks ago, Fantilli will be looked at to lift a Michigan program that saw five players – Matty Beniers, Owen Power, Kent Johnson, Thomas Bordeleau and Nick Blankenburg – leave last season and step almost immediately onto an NHL team to close out the season.

Most teams can’t sustain losses like that all at once. Even though Michigan continues to attract top talent, it would still take a special effort for this group to be as young as it is and honestly push for a national championship. Michigan's quest to end its NCAA title drought in men's hockey is in its 25th year. Having a first-year player like Fantilli playing at an especially high level makes national title aspirations feel a little more feasible, though the road ahead remains difficult.

The parallels between Eichel and Fantilli are hard to avoid seeing as Eichel was the highest-drafted player directly out of the NCAA since Rick DiPietro went first overall in 2000. Eichel basically put Boston University on his back and took them to the national championship game where they suffered a narrow defeat to Providence College in that magical 2014-15 campaign. Eichel became just the second freshman to win the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as men’s college hockey’s top player. Had Eichel done what he did at BU in any other year, he’d have had a fairly easy case to be the No. 1 pick. He just so happened to be in the same draft as the greatest player the world had seen since Sidney Crosby 10 years prior.

Fantilli may be in a similar boat in that regard, too. While Bedard is not the skater McDavid is – nor is anyone – he might be one of the best pure goal scorers at his age I’ve ever seen since I’ve been on the prospects beat, Auston Matthews included. That’s going to be very difficult for Fantilli to overcome if he wants to go No. 1, but it makes him no less valuable a prospect.

Teams are continually in the market for players with No. 1 center upside, especially if they have size. Fantilli has shown over the last few years that the upside is there with him. Every year he has added to or improved elements of his game to continue rounding out into the complete package teams are looking for. He can probably afford to clean up some of his puck decisions and trying to force plays here and there, but there aren’t a ton of elements in his game that are lacking. 

As a result, the Michigan Wolverines have to feel like they still are in the mix to contend for the top prize this year in the NCAA and Fantilli has to feel like he’s still on track to be one of the most impactful young players in the last few drafts. That doesn't sound like the profile of a consolation prize to me.