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BUFFALO — Leo Karlsson was very honest when asked at the NHL Scouting Combine how much he knew about the city of Columbus.

There’s a very good chance the young Swede will land there, picked third overall in the NHL draft in a few weeks, but that doesn’t mean he’s figured out the city much yet.

“I can find it on a map,” he says with a smile, at least it’s a good start.

It was also a good reminder that there is still a lot to learn – from all angles – at the combine. Karlsson is one of the few faces — along with Adam Fantilly and Connor Bedard — who are actually recognized as top-tier prospects. But there were also plenty of guys with NHL futures floating around the LECOM Harborcenter who didn’t stand out in the crowd just yet — especially at the end of the arena.

The entry into the 2023 draft was announced by Bedard and other highly talented prospects with plenty of goals, assists and dollars. This can cloud the reality, and there are also some surprising goaltenders and defensemen to talk about in the first round of the draft.

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So, as we empty the notebook after a day of hearing kids scream and grind on Wingate bikes, let’s pass it on to the Blue Liners and Puckstoppers to shed some light.

A tale of two bids

Size is always a big talking point when discussing NHL netminders. In the case of Michael Harabal and Trey Augustin, the former has, while the latter has to constantly answer questions about it.

“In the last couple of years, smaller goaltenders have been finding ways to get into the NHL and stay there,” said Augustine, who is somehow diminutive at six-foot-one. “Of course I’ve been asked about (size), but I don’t think there’s a problem there.”

Neither is Ryan Leonard of the US National Team Development Program.

“The best goaltender in the world in my opinion and probably a couple on our team,” he said of the man who posted a .934 save percentage for the victorious American side at the World Under-18 Championship this spring. “It practically makes your life difficult.”

Not surprisingly, Augustine modeled his approach in the debate after balls of modest proportions. “I’ll try to watch (Sergey) Bobrovsky and (Jews) Saros,” he said. “Just how to move and take their net. Apparently, they’re not super tall, they’re about the same size as me. (I see) to see how they can increase the coverage in the network.

At the other end sits Michael Hrabal. It might be a bit of a stretch to suggest that Augustin or Hrabal could make it to the first round, but at a six-foot-six frame, teams know Hrabal will.

“It’s very comfortable to play in front of him,” said Jakub Stankel of Harabal Czech. He is like a wall.

This past year was Harabal’s first in North America and the first time he grew up living away from his parents, he said. He also endured a tough stint with the United States Hockey League’s Omaha Lancers midway through the season and said he was better for the experience.

“I’m very grateful for the year,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot, I’ve been through some ups and downs.”

Although being the first goalkeeper off the board is a huge honor, Hrabal isn’t getting too wrapped up in it. “It would definitely be nice, but I don’t see it that way,” he said. “I just want to go to a team that wants me and has a good future.”

The big 3 in D

Two years ago, the draft went to the Buffalo Sabres, with defensive tackle Owen Power going first overall. Last year, the New Jersey Devils took quarterback Simon Nemec with the second pick.

A defender doesn’t think he can go that high at this point, but things could heat up from 5 to 15, maybe even 12 picks. With the uncertainty surrounding the Russian players, it is difficult to know what will happen to the most famous Mikhail Gulyanov. which was not in Buffalo).

That leaves David Reinbacher – the first blueliner on the board – and Swedes Axel Sandin-Pelica and Tom Wilander to think about. Although their styles differ, all three come with the desired right-footed trait.

Austrian Reinbacher spent last season playing in the same Swiss Pro League as Auston Matthews before being selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016. Puck,” said the six-foot-two Reinbacher.

Wilander was a huge riser in the second half of the season, and Sandin-Pellikka has a pretty good idea why. “He’s very aggressive,” he said of his World U-18 Championship teammate. “He’s very good on the ice and can put the power play back at quarterback. He’s got some good hands on him, so he’s a good player overall.”

As for Sandin-Pelica himself, his sporting future took a big turn early in his career. His father tried to get him into cross-country skiing, but another family member had something else in mind. “My grandfather bought me hockey equipment when I was six years old,” Sandin-Pelikaka said. “Basically, after the first practice, I straight up told my dad we had to stop cross-country skiing because hockey was more fun.”

Speaking volumes about how big bodies dominate the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the five-foot-11 Sandin-Pelica found himself in a familiar position when asked about his size.

“I don’t really care what people say,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of guys in the NHL that aren’t that big. Especially Quinn Hughes (Vancouver Canucks), he’s someone I look up to and watch a game. With his skating and puck-handling, he can still handle himself well in the NHL. I get inspiration from those people.”

The other side of a big swap

Nick Lardis had one goal while playing for Peterborough Pit from November 26th to January 5th. Knowing they had a shot at an OHL championship, the Pitts acquired top junior vets Avery Hayes and Gavin White from the Hamilton Bulldogs in a package that included Lardis and Sahil Panwar. The Pitts got what they wanted in the form of an OHL championship, but things went the other way with the players.

Left winger Lardis and Panwar lined up with Patrick Thomas, and the results were immediate. Lardis scored in his first and second games against Hamilton. He was blanked in the third, but added four more goals in his next three outings and advanced to the playoffs, making the NHL draft rankings. In total, the 17-year-old scored 25 times in 33 games with his new club.

“I think it’s a little bit of everything, just hitting the reset button,” said Lardis, known for his iconic wheels. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities to be an impact player on a smaller team in different situations and run with it.”

The final result may be set in the first round or perhaps the first name from the board on day 2.

We look forward to ’24’.

It’s easy to get excited about the impact of players around the draft, even though most of them are two or three years away from making the NHL and even far from making a real impact at that level. Still, this is the upcoming season and there has been talk of McLean Celebrini, the man who intends to headline the 2024 event.

“I’ve been lucky enough to live with him this year,” said Jayden Perron, Celbrini’s teammate with the Chicago Steel in the USHL. “He’s an unbelievable guy off the ice and he works really hard and he deserves everything he gets.”

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