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The New Sid and Ovi? Connor Bedard and Matvei Michkov's Rivalry Is Just Starting

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2022

FRISCO, TEXAS - MAY 06: Matvei Michkov #17 of Russia celebrates after scoring a goal against Canada during the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Gold Medal Game at Comerica Center on May 06, 2021 in Frisco, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The next ones are coming. And they teased their tremendous talent at the abbreviated 2022 World Junior Championship.

Normally, the standouts at World Juniors are the 19-year-olds who have already been drafted by NHL teams. Last year, Trevor Zegras won gold with Team USA and was named tournament MVP, then made the jump to the Anaheim Ducks. Other Americans, like Spencer Knight (Florida Panthers) and Cole Caufield (Montreal Canadiens), weren't far behind.

This year, in just a few days before the ill-fated 2022 event was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns, two of the youngest players in the tournament made some of the biggest on-ice headlines.

Not even draft-eligible until 2023, Connor Bedard of Canada and Matvei Michkov of Russia have both announced themselves as potential generational talents. In a few years, they could headline the NHL's next great superstar rivalry, echoing the kind of magic we saw when Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin ushered in a new NHL era back in 2005.

                  

Show Us the Scoring

The youngest player in the tournament, Bedard dazzled with a four-goal outing and was named Canada's player of the game when it defeated Austria 11-2. That four-goal game also set a record for Canada and tied an all-time tournament record.

IIHF @IIHFHockey

⭐ CONNOR BEDARD JUST TIED THE #WORLDJUNIORS SINGLE GAME GOAL RECORD! And is the youngest player EVER to get 4 goals in a single game. 🇨🇦 @HockeyCanada @WHLPats https://t.co/7uqLRHnir3

With a performance like that, it's no wonder that scouts say Bedard's shot and his smarts stand out as his most impressive attributes.

Over in Russia's tournament opener, a 6-3 loss to Sweden, Michkov scored a pair of goals and was named his team's best player. One day later, he scored again in Russia's 4-2 win over Switzerland.

Michkov's calling card is his creativity. He's game to try the 'Michigan' play when the opportunity presents itself, and his goals are as noteworthy for their flash as their frequency.

At 16, Bedard started the tournament in a depth role as Canada's 13th forward. Four days later, when World Juniors organizers shut the event down on Dec. 29, his four goals had him at the top of the goal-scoring race.

He returned to his junior team, the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, Jan. 1 and promptly delivered another four-goal outing. Already in his second year of Major Junior hockey, and wearing an "A" with Regina, Bedard now has 18 goals in 25 WHL games so far this season. He doesn't turn 17 until July.

Michkov, who turned 17 on Dec. 9, was in a high-profile role for Russia from the outset. He skated as the team's first-line center, and his three goals had him in a three-way tie for second place when World Juniors was canceled.

Back home, Michkov has already played 13 games this season in Russia's top men's league, the KHL. He has two goals and five points for perennial powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg.

With Canada and Russia slotted into different World Juniors groups this year, fans were hoping we'd see a head-to-head matchup between Bedard and Michkov later in the tournament, in one of the high-stakes knockout-round games. COVID-19 had other ideas, of course.

The teams did square off in their lone pre-tournament game on Dec. 23. Michkov scored twice and Bedard tallied once in a 6-4 win for Team Canada.

              

Making the Comparison

Ovechkin and Crosby both entered the NHL at the same time, in the fall of 2005. But they're nearly two years apart in age—Ovechkin was born on Sept. 16, 1985 and Crosby's birth date is Aug. 7, 1987. Separated by one draft, both were first overall picks—the Washington Capitals selected Ovechkin in 2004 and the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Crosby in 2005. Because the 2004-05 season was lost to a lockout, that set the stage for their dual debuts.

The Russian held the early edge in the rivalry, winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year with 106 points compared to Crosby's 102. Now, more than 15 years later, it's tough to make a definitive case for who has had the better career.

Crosby has his three Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, two scoring titles and two Hart Trophies. He has also worked his way through numerous serious injury challenges to put up 1,343 points in 1,057 games.

Ovechkin has one Stanley Cup along with three Hart Trophies and nine goal-scoring titles, as well as his Calder. Extraordinarily healthy throughout his career, he's at 1,370 points in 1,230 NHL games and is making a full-on charge for Wayne Gretzky's all-time scoring record.

While Crosby is more of a playmaker than Ovechkin—until recently, anyway—Bedard and Michkov are more similar in that they are both triggermen. But at this point, it's unlikely that they'll be going head-to-head from Day 1 in the NHL.

Though both players are eligible for the same draft, in 2023, Bedard could make the jump to hockey's top league immediately, at age 18. Meanwhile, more than a year ago, Michkov signed a contract that commits him to SKA through the end of the 2025-26 season.

It's not quite a Kirill Kaprizov situation—the Minnesota Wild sniper was 23 when he fulfilled his KHL obligations and finally made the jump to North America, where he won the Calder Trophy in his rookie season. But as the situation stands, Michkov will be 21 at the end of his KHL contract and likely won't get to go head-to-head against Bedard in the NHL until the 2026-27 season.

Until then, there's always more World Juniors. Organizers have expressed hope that they will be able to remount the canceled 2022 event sometime later this year. And because tournament eligibility is based on birth year, both Bedard and Michkov will still be able to suit up for the 2023 event—set to take place in Russia—and in 2024 in Sweden.

Bedard's even eligible for the 2025 event, when the United States is set to host. But based on his career trajectory, there's a good chance he will already be lighting it up in the NHL by then.

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