Column: Ducks surprise by picking Leo Carlsson in NHL draft, but choice makes sense

Leo Carlsson poses with Ducks officials after being picked by the team during the first round of the NHL draft.
Leo Carlsson poses with Ducks officials after being picked by the team during the first round of the NHL draft on Wednesday in Nashville.
(George Walker IV / Associated Press)

The more Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek saw of Swedish center Leo Carlsson on and off the ice, the more impressed Verbeek became.

Carlsson’s skills were obvious. “We really loved his hockey IQ, loved his creativity. Obviously he’s got really good size,” Verbeek said of the 18-year-old, who gracefully handled a two-inch growth spurt the last year to stand 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds.

“Seeing him play center at the world championships, playing on the No. 1 line for his country and seeing him play a 200-foot game, I think that was a big thing for us, not only having potential to dominate in the offensive zone but also be able to dominate in the defensive zone.”


Those strengths, coupled with Carlsson’s poise during several interviews, persuaded Verbeek to choose Carlsson over University of Michigan standout Adam Fantilli on Wednesday with the No. 2 pick of the NHL draft.

It was a mild surprise. But the choice made sense for the Ducks, who have a stockpile of young talent and can allow Carlsson to remain with his Swedish team Orebro next season to continue his development.

“We’re going to do a lot of discussing and make sure that everyone is comfortable with how we proceed here,” Verbeek said via video conference from Nashville after the first round of the draft concluded. Rounds two through seven will be conducted Thursday.

“We’re in a good position with him,” Verbeek said of Carlsson, who drove 14 hours from New York to Nashville after travel woes disrupted his plans. “As I’ve said before, we’re not going to rush young players to the league. We’re going to look to make sure that they’re ready, and so we’re going to take that approach with Leo as well.”

Greg Cronin, who waited a lifetime to be a head coach in the NHL, is tasked with turning around the Ducks. The team should get help Wednesday in the draft.

June 27, 2023

Carlsson has had a mild stutter since childhood. He has largely conquered it while speaking Swedish, but it sometimes recurs when he speaks English or is under pressure, and it was detectable during his post-selection interview with ESPN. Longtime hockey fans might remember Dave Taylor also stuttered but went on to a Hall of Fame-worthy career as a player with the Kings before becoming an executive.

“I’m super-excited to join the Anaheim Ducks and super-excited for my future as well,” said Carlsson, who is scheduled to participate in the Ducks’ development camp next month.


As expected, center Connor Bedard was chosen No. 1 by the Chicago Blackhawks, who beat out the Ducks in the draft lottery. Bedard, from North Vancouver, Canada, has been touted as a generational talent along the lines of Connor McDavid despite being only 5-10 and 185 pounds. His speed, quick release, and exceptional ability to read the game have made his size irrelevant.

After the Ducks selected Carlsson, Columbus chose Fantilli. The first American drafted was Will Smith of Lexington, Mass., at No. 4, by San Jose.

Leo Carlsson puts on a Ducks jersey after being picked by the team during the first round of the NHL draft.
(George Walker IV / Associated Press)

For the second straight season, the Kings didn’t have a first-round pick. They dealt their 2022 first-rounder to Minnesota in the Kevin Fiala trade and sent their 2023 first-round pick to Columbus for Vlaidslav Gavrikov and Joonas Korpisalo. They’re scheduled to pick in the second round, 54th overall, on Thursday.

The Kings were quiet after making their big move Tuesday, when they acquired center Pierre-Luc Dubois in a sign-and-trade with Winnipeg for slick-handed Gabe Vilardi, Alex Iafallo and Rasmus Kupari, and a 2024 second-round pick.

In peeling back the layers, it’s clear general manager Rob Blake wanted to establish a successor to Anze Kopitar as the team’s No. 1 center. Kopitar, still a fine two-way center but soon to be 36, is entering the final year of his contract and is in line to become an unrestricted free agent. Blake also wanted to get bigger and deeper up the middle to compete with Stanley Cup champion Vegas and other West rivals.


Dubois, 25, is 6-3 and is coming off a career-best 63-point season for Winnipeg, which apparently is enough these days to get $8.5 million annually. He should give the Kings a solid 1-2-3 punch with Kopitar and Phillip Danault followed by Blake Lizotte bringing energy on the fourth line.

Dubois’ attitude has been questioned because he wanted out of his first stop, Columbus, and didn’t see a long-term future in Winnipeg. His new contract and solid cast around him should be enough incentive for him to go all-in with the Kings. “Now he comes into a situation where he basically gets to choose where he wanted to go, at the end of the day, and we were fortunate that L.A. was one of the destinations for him,” Blake told reporters.

The L.A. Kings acquired 25-year-old center Pierre-Luc Dubois in a major sign-and-trade deal with the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday.

June 27, 2023

Dubois said the chance to play for the Kings “was like a dream come true.” We’ll see if that’s the case in the later years of his contract.

His average annual value of $8.5 million will constitute 10.2% of the Kings’ cap hit next season, according to Dubois, Kopitar ($10 million), and Drew Doughty ($11 million) will take up 35.4% of next season’s salary cap, which will be $83.5 million.

The Kings still must address their glaring need in goal. They could start the season with Pheonix Copley at No. 1 and upgrade before the trade deadline, as they did last season in acquiring Korpisalo. That move had mixed results: Gavrikov was the big, physical defenseman they needed and he signed a new deal to stay, but Korpisalo can walk away when free agency begins at 9 a.m. Saturday.

For the Kings, who are in a win-now mode, draft day this year was just another Wednesday. For the Ducks, it was a day they hope they’ll remember in a few years as a step forward in their return to competitiveness.