The cryptocurrency market was flying high in 2021. Market value had reached more than $3 trillion. And leaders like Bitcoin and Shiba Inu skyrocketed. Then came 2022, and the story changed drastically. As major stock indexes moved into bear territory and inflation surged, investors fled the riskiest assets -- such as cryptocurrency.

Why is crypto risky? Because it's new, and we don't know for sure what the landscape will look like several years down the road. But here's the good news. Today's economic troubles may be weighing on crypto now, but they haven't changed what each player has to offer. That means that if you were optimistic about crypto's future back in 2021, there's reason to maintain that optimism today. So which cryptocurrencies could be the hottest this year? Let's find out.

1. Ethereum

Ethereum (ETH -3.28%) is the world's second-biggest cryptocurrency -- and general leader across the board. It's attracted the most developers and offers the most decentralized applications (dApps). And Ethereum is at the head of the pack when it comes to selling non-fungible tokens, too.

All that means people are actually using Ethereum -- a lot. To stand out in a sea of thousands of cryptocurrencies, that is essential. It could also comfort investors who might be a bit skittish about the crypto market but still want to give it a try. So in 2023, Ethereum could be the cryptocurrency that helps bring investors back to the cryptocurrency market.

Another plus that could attract both cautious and aggressive investors is this: Ethereum is on the way to getting even better. In the past, Ethereum's three big problems were high energy use, high transaction fees, and slow speed. The blockchain is in the middle of an upgrade project to address all these issues.

The switch to the proof-of-stake method of validating transactions happened last year and cut energy use by more than 99%. An upgrade -- the introduction of sharding, or the process of splitting up a database horizontally -- set for this year should decrease fees and increase transaction speeds.

Upgrades should draw increasingly more users to Ethereum, and investors will like that. Last year, Ethereum lost 67%. Yet the crypto's future is looking better and better. At today's price and considering Ethereum's development, this player could become a favorite of crypto investors.

2. Cardano

Cardano (ADA 0.57%) sank 81% last year. But like Ethereum, Cardano may offer a safety feature for hesitant investors. No, Cardano isn't a leader yet. But Cardano could attract investors because it's cautious about the way it develops its blockchain.

Cardano uses a peer review system before any update is made. This results in slower progress than rivals but ensures stability. That could be something investors appreciate in today's difficult market. Since Cardano's launch, it's never missed a block of data during validation or experienced a network shutdown during upgrades.

There are other reasons to like Cardano right now, too. Last year, the crypto completed upgrades allowing it to move forward in the world of dApps. Cardano also made the list of the 10 cryptos most used in payments last year, according to Coingate. So people are using Cardano increasingly more. Cardano use also should pick up through the introduction of two stablecoins expected early this year.

Finally, Cardano developers are working on something exciting that could make the network one of the fastest. I'm talking about the Hydra Head upgrade. The idea is to make it possible to handle certain transactions on these Hydra Heads off the main chain. This reduces congestion and increases speed.

Cardano is a newish player with a lot of room for growth -- and its manner of development offers a bit of safety, too. Investors might like this combination in 2023. And that could make Cardano one of the hottest players around.