The next one: Canada’s Bedard is another can’t-miss Connor

Canada

EDMONTON—Imagine having Patrick Kane’s skill and Auston Matthews’ shot.

That’s one way to describe Connor Bedard, currently showing off his skills for Canada at the summer edition of the world junior hockey championship. He’s the reason the likes of the Chicago Blackhawks, Arizona Coyotes and any other team deemed to be going nowhere but down will be accused of tanking their season.

Bedard is a can’t-miss talent, and though he might only be the second-best hockey player named Connor, he could one day be right up there with McDavid.

“He deserves those expectations and it’s well worth tanking to get him because he has incredible talent, boasts NHL superstar qualities right now and has the chance to turn a franchise around,” says Mark Seidel, chief scout for the North American Central Scouting Independent Bureau and director of player personnel for the OHL Barrie Colts.

“He’s too good,” says Tomas Montén, the veteran junior coach with Sweden. “I’ve see him for a couple of years now. He’s not a big guy, but he’s really strong. He’s strong on the puck. And every time there’s a scoring chance, he finds some open space. He’s a really good hockey player. Scouts should watch him.”

They have been. For years. A graduate of West Vancouver Academy, Bedard became the first player in the Western Hockey League to be granted exceptional player status and joined the Regina Pats at 15. He had 28 points in 15 games in the pandemic-shortened season.

Last year, he became the first 16-year-old since McDavid to make the national junior team for the tournament played largely by 19-year-olds. Others who have done it include Wayne Gretzky (1978), Eric Lindros (1990), Jason Spezza and Jay Bouwmeester (2000), and Sidney Crosby (2004). He’s compared most often to McDavid and Crosby.

“That’s two of the best players that ever played hockey,” Bedard says. “It’s an honour for me. It’s pretty crazy. I haven’t played a game in the NHL or even played a full two years of junior. So it’s wild. But whenever I hear that, it’s definitely an honour.”

He scored four goals in a world junior game in December — a record for a 16-year-old — before the tournament was cancelled because of COVID and rescheduled for August. He went on to amass 100 points, including 51 goals, in 62 games as a 16-year old with the Pats.

Though he’s a terrific skater and a decent playmaker, it’s his shot — heavy, thanks to a 70-flex stick that seems a bit long for his five-foot-nine frame — that has everyone talking.

Connor Bedard was the 13th forward, briefly, for Canada at the cancelled world junior tournament in December. He’s a first-liner at this month’s makeup tournament,

“His shot, it’s incredible,” Canadian linemate Joshua Roy says. “I don’t know how this guy can shoot that hard. And that accurate.”

It’s the one thing Bedard admits he loves working on more than most. “It’s something I take a lot of pride in. Just go to my backyard or around the ice, shooting pucks a lot. It’s what I enjoy. I think if you ask any kid what he wants to work on, it’s not skating. It’s shooting pucks.”

Bedard is a hot ticket off the ice, too. Bedard was working out with McDavid in Toronto before this tournament and signed up as brand ambassador for Biosteel, the hockey-created energy drink that is now partnered with the NHL as a sponsor.

He just turned 17.

Canada coach Dave Cameron has seen growth in Bedard’s game since last coaching him in December. And he sees room for more growth.

“He’s an elite player,” Cameron says. “But elite players always have to grow and develop …

Maturity and growth and experience, when you’re a young player, those are huge. You can’t fast-forward through that. Good hockey players grow, not just physically, but grow in the maturity, learning that there’s more than offence to (the game) … Connor, being the elite player he is, is probably processing (that) a little quicker than normal, but you still have to go through that process.”

Bedard started as the 13th forward for Canada in December but quickly moved up the lineup. He started on the top line this month, with Mason McTavish and Joshua Roy, and has scored the first goal for Canada in each of its first two games. He has been the motor that gets the team going.

“Goal scorers want to score and they want to score often,” Cameron says. “So I’m not really worried about Connor and the offensive part of his game. He’s established that for a long period of time. I really like that he’s in the blue paint, getting banged around. That’s what goal scorers do. We talk about his shot, which is elite. But he’s also willing to get into those tough areas. To me, that’s a sure sign of maturity.”

Drafts are interesting animals. Not every one is created equal. Not every No. 1 pick is deemed to be a generational talent. And even some described that way as teenagers fail to live up to the hype if they eventually become established NHLers. But the 2023 draft is deep at the top with Bedard and Matvei Michkov, who was Russia’s best forward in two December games. Michkov’s stock may fall with Russia being left out of this tournament after its invasion of Ukraine.

Bedard is already No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting’s list of North American skaters.

“The hype is reminiscent to that of the McDavid and Matthews draft years (2015, 2016) and, similarly, Bedard is one of those players who is ‘worth the price of admission’ as he is always a scoring threat whenever he’s on the ice and almost effortlessly capable of making highlight-reel plays,” Dan Marr, the NHL’s director of Central Scouting, wrote in an email. “Connor Bedard is an outstanding talent with an elite skill set and hockey IQ; he’s on a well-earned level of his own right now as the No. 1 prospect for the 2023 NHL draft. His vision, anticipation, exceptionally quick hands and moves — all combined with the ability to utilize these skills and assets at top speed — place him in the category of being a ‘special’ NHL prospect.

“He continuously produces and lives up to the hype of being a wizard with the puck and making plays that have you believing he has eyes in the back of his head; he is one of the more natural scorers to come along since Patrick Kane (a five-foot-10 forward who went No. 1 in the 2007 NHL draft).”

Bedard knows all eyes will be on him in what will become a fan-backed Tank For Connor season in places like Chicago and Phoenix.

“I think I’m just going to play hockey,” he says. “I love the game and it’s the thing I enjoy doing the most. There’s so much time until the draft. I’m going to be focused right now on winning the gold medal and then my team in Regina winning games. That stuff will all take care of itself.”

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