The men's World Junior Championship that begins every December is an opportunity for hockey fans to see the best teenage male (non-NHL) hockey players in the world. When looking for the best of the best, Canada is usually a safe place to start.
The hockey hotbed usually loads its roster with the top 18- and 19-year-olds available to them—many of whom eventually become NHL stars. If there's room, a high-caliber 17-year-old or two will fight his way onto the roster. This year, projected 2022 first overall pick Shane Wright earned the lone skater spot, while Brett Brochu will fill in as the third-string goaltender.
Every once in a while, however, an outlier emerges. Very few 16-year-olds have suited up for Canada in this prestigious tournament. Not John Tavares, not Steven Stamkos and not Aaron Ekblad, all future first overall picks. The last to do so was Connor McDavid at the 2015 tournament. Before him, it was Sidney Crosby in 2004.
Connor Bedard will be the next and only eighth to ever do so, having made the roster for the 2022 tournament.
It's not a surprise to anyone who has been following his development. Considered to be the best prospect since McDavid, the Canadian center became the seventh player in Canadian Hockey League history to be granted "exceptional status" last season, meaning that, at age 15, he was able to play in the Western Hockey League, usually reserved for 16-to-20-year-olds. On the rebuilding Regina Pats, Bedard lit the league on fire with 12 goals and 16 assists in 15 games. With that output, he ranked first in the WHL by points per game (minimum 10 games). Since the turn of the century, only Tavares has produced at a better rate two seasons prior to his draft year.
The numbers haven't quite been there for him this season, at least by his standards, with "only" 24 points in 24 games. This reduced output does not reflect a decline in his play but is rather the result of misfortune. He scored just five goals on 78 shots in his first 14 games, making for an abnormally low conversion rate despite how frequently he was generating scoring chances. That variance has since corrected itself, and Bedard left Regina for Canada's training camp with eight goals and six assists in his last 10 games.
What separates Bedard from the rest is the speed at which he plays. That doesn't mean skating, although he is very quick on his feet. Rather, it's how fast he's able to process information and then act on it.
Bedard thrives when he's carrying the puck down the middle lane of the ice. He contorts his body, uses short strides and constantly changes the angles at which he holds the puck, almost cradling it like a lacrosse player. This hides his intentions and gives him the capacity to adjust to what's happening in front of him, and he does it all at full speed.
The conflicting information his body gives as well as the speed at which he pushes the pace make him exceptionally hard to defend. Defenders have little time to visually communicate with teammates and make decisions on how to play his rushes, and Bedard is cutthroat in exploiting them, changing his weight distribution in a flash and finding the smallest openings the second defenders expose them.
His hands are elite, and this most prominently shows itself in his shooting. Bedard is a scoring center, and despite his small frame (5'9", 181 lbs), he is able to release some vicious shots. More importantly, as it pertains to him, he is able to create his own shot.
Bedard is the point guard on the ice. All possessions run through him, and that leaves him little opportunity off the puck to get lost and find soft spots for catch-and-release finishes, as previous No. 1 overall picks Alexis Lafreniere and Stamkos do so well. Bedard is able to generate a ton of spin on the puck when he shoots, and his release is well-disguised. While in motion, he will find the smallest windows of opportunity, push the puck into the open lane and get the shot off his stick before defenders and goaltenders are physically capable of reacting.
While it's secondary to his shooting, the playmaking instincts are absolutely there. Bedard is not necessarily going to quarterback the play from a standstill on controlled offensive zone possessions as a Nicklas Backstrom might. Rather, he sets up goals the same way he scores them, carrying the puck through the middle of the ice and finding the openings to teammates that result from the first slight mistake made by defenders.
Individually, Bedard's skating, hands and hockey IQ are all impressive. It's the symphony of them all together that make him an elite offensive player. It's as if he plays on fast forward while visually seeing a play unfold in front of him in slow motion. Everything he does is about playing with incredible pace and forcing defenders into mistakes. He carries up the middle of the ice with zero hesitation, which off the bat forces defenders to visually communicate coverages in a short time frame.
If a defender covers him aggressively, Bedard is going to find the smallest mechanical or positional error and beat him wide or inside. Or he'll use the defender as a screen to hide his release and get the puck past goaltenders undetected. He has the upper hand in any one-on-one contest of processing and reflexes.
Beating that player triggers a domino effect of other defenders having to compensate and abandon their structure. If a defender leaves a big gap to give himself more reaction time, as they often do against him, it just provides Bedard the opportunity to skate into the net and rip his deadly wrister. If multiple players converge on him, he'll invite that gravity and then find whichever teammate is open laterally.
There are a lot of players who have natural skill on the puck but who need open space to do anything with it. Bedard is almost the opposite. He's at his best when the ice is crowded. For him, defenders aren't obstacles; they're his pawns in orchestrating chaos. This differentiates him from other elite NHL players such as McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Nathan MacKinnon, who thrive using their physical tools primarily.
"As much as he's a shooter, he's also extremely crafty, possessing some of the best natural hockey sense I've ever seen," one NHL scout told Bleacher Report. "He's much more of a Crosby-style player than any of the other recent superstars who have more pace to their game."
Bedard is almost certain to become the first overall pick in the 2023 NHL draft despite some stiff competition from Russian superstar Matvei Michkov. From there, all expectations are that he'll become one of the best handful of players in the league.
But can he become just as good as, or even better than, McDavid? That's unlikely. McDavid is blowing away his peers offensively in ways that haven't been seen since Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. Many players who are clear Hall of Famers can't reach that level. Bedard's hockey sense and hands are as good as anyone's, but McDavid is three inches taller and arguably the best skater hockey has ever seen. As a different NHL scout put it, that's a disadvantage Bedard could never overcome when comparing the two.
"McDavid's separating skills are so disruptive that I don't think you can project anyone above him that doesn't have that insane speed," he said.
Instead, the scout compared Bedard to Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Kucherov does play wing, but the stylistic similarities are obvious. They're both smaller players who command the puck, take on defenders, process the game incredibly fast and possess a lethal shot while in motion.
Kucherov is, at worst, one of the top-five offensive players in the NHL, and if Bedard can live up to that, then he'll singlehandedly change the fate of whatever franchise lands him. The World Junior Championship, which begins Dec. 26, will be an opportunity for him to show that to an international audience.