For the better part of two years, the 2023 NHL Draft has been widely billed as a cohort capable of transforming the landscape of the league. Connor Bedard, the presumptive No. 1 pick, is the best prospect to enter the NHL since Connor McDavid in 2015, while Adam Fantilli and Leo Carlsson likely would’ve been taken with the first overall selection in last year’s event if they were eligible. And yet Matvei Michkov stands alone as the most interesting player in this year’s class.
It’s a unique recipe: Michkov is a slightly undersized playmaker with all-world passing ability, he looks to embarrass his opponents with dazzling displays of skill, he’s a league-average skater, he’s under contract for two more years with SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL and due to the escalation of a global international conflict, he’s been scarcely viewed in best-on-best competition. Michkov is considered by near-consensus opinion to be the best Russian prospect since Alexander Ovechkin and he posted nine goals and 20 points while on loan for HC Sochi, a club largely devoid of professional talent that finished last in the KHL.
This is Matvei Michkov. He loves scoring goals.
There's a team outside of the top 3 that's going to draft him and then smile for a really long time. pic.twitter.com/noAzbuOkJK
On the surface, Michkov’s output may not seem spectacular, but his .67 point-per-game average is the highest for any draft-eligible player in KHL history. Although his shot isn’t in the same tier as Connor Bedard’s — no prospect in recent memory with the possible exception of Auston Matthews comes close — Michkov also boasts an exceptional release where he can beat goaltenders from distance, with excellent finishing skills in net-front situations to boot.
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) May 7, 2021
Bedard firmly positioned himself as the presumptive No. 1 with a tour-de-force performance at the 2023 World Juniors, but the gap between him and Michkov was initially much closer. Michkov won tournament MVP at the 2021 IIHF World U18 Championship, posting 12 goals and 16 points in seven games — Bedard, for what it’s worth, recorded seven goals and 14 points in seven games, leading Canada to a 5-3 victory over Russia in the gold-medal game. At the 2021 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, Michkov commanded Russia to victory while leading the tournament in scoring with eight goals and 13 points, outperforming 2022 first-round picks Juraj Slafkovsky (1st overall), Ivan Miroshnichenko (20th) and Filip Mesar (26th) in the process. Canada — and by extension, Bedard and Fantilli — weren’t present, but Michkov proved himself to be a nearly equally prodigious scorer against international competition.
Prior to the cancellation of the 2021 World Juniors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Michkov recorded three goals in two games, a tournament that would’ve provided another large-scale glimpse into his NHL future.
The equation changed in February 2022 when the IIHF suspended Russia indefinitely from all competitions due to the escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Michkov wasn’t eligible to participate in the 2022 or 2023 World Juniors and fans were relegated to viewing highlight packs of the 17-year-old instead. Bedard, long considered a true peer, separated himself from the rest of the cohort with a tremendous season in the WHL, recording 71 goals and 143 points with the Regina Pats, before dominating the 2023 World Juniors.
Geopolitical conflict is at the center of Michkov’s status as a prospect. NHL teams are wary of taking Russian players in fears, whether unfounded or not, about players being unwilling to sign a professional contract. There has been a tendency to view Michkov as a proxy to Russia’s war against Ukraine, a prevailing belief that the 18-year-old is automatically associated with Vladimir Putin’s prolonged offensive. This notion is unfair to Michkov, who said he will honour his contract with SKA Saint Petersburg through 2025-26 but has otherwise been non-committal about an extension in the KHL.
Michkov reportedly hasn’t made it easy for NHL teams to communicate with him, but projecting his unwillingness to meet with teams in Russia as a character flaw also feels unfair. In large part due to the fact that Michkov hasn’t participated in the typical draft-year pageantry that the rest of his peers have been subject to, it appears that there’s unfounded criticism in absence of real opportunity to further evaluate him.
The 18-year-old winger is certainly too talented to slip down draft boards and it’s widely rumoured that the Washington Capitals will select Michkov with the No. 8 pick, if he’s still available. Michkov presents an interesting calculus and the two-year interval between draft night and his NHL arrival may be too rich for some general managers to stomach, creating a dynamic where he is inherently more valuable to some clubs than others. Bedard is a lock to go first overall to the Blackhawks, then the Ducks are widely expected to select Fantilli, who excelled at the University of Michigan during his lone NCAA campaign. From there onwards, the draft becomes compelling and it starts with the Michkov question.
If you’re Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen, can you wait for Michkov’s arrival while bottoming out a year after Johnny Gaudreau signed a seven-year deal worth $68.25 million? If you’re San Jose Sharks general manager Mike Grier, will you be afforded enough patience to select Michkov while accelerating the team’s rebuilding process? These internal monologues will be considered and it could affect the rest of the board. Montreal holds the fifth overall pick and the equation is different for general manager Kent Hughes, who seemingly operates with carte blanche while tasked with restoring the NHL’s marquee franchise back to glory. Not all franchises are created equal and the Canadiens’ fan base could easily rest with the idea that they received the second-best player in a loaded draft class while the rebuild continues. They’re also the rare franchise with the financial, institutional and reputational power to even challenge SKA Saint Petersburg into letting Michkov out of his contract — a real Tom Hagen vs. Jack Woltz scenario, if you will.
If Michkov slips past the Canadiens, the board opens up again with a few more questions: can the Arizona Coyotes, an organization that is the laughingstock of the league after failing to secure an NHL-caliber arena while operating as a dead-money wasteland, afford to tell their fleeting fan base to wait two more years for a key component of their makeover? Will the Philadelphia Flyers pass on an uber-talented winger while trying to figure out what to do with key veterans on their roster? And could the Capitals pass up a chance to unite Michkov with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, two players who would serve as immediate, veteran mentors? I suppose we’ll find out this week, but the idea that Michkov could slip beyond the Capitals at No. 8 is unfathomable from a talent perspective.
Michkov was once considered a prospect equally tantalizing as Bedard, and in part due to several factors that are largely out of his control, is now considered an enigma in a draft class that should shape both the present and future of the NHL. He’s simply too talented, too silky, too prolific to pass up and his looming contract status are among the several reasons why he’s the most interesting player in the 2023 NHL Draft.