Connor Bedard and the 2023 NHL draft were mentioned in the same breath long before the phenom played a single shift in junior hockey.
The 17-year-old’s path to the stage at Bridgestone Arena has been dotted by big goals, clutch performances and memorable moments in a young career poised to enter its next phase.
The draft in Nashville — Wednesday’s made-for-TV first round followed by six more Thursday — is all but assured of being his coronation story as the first overall pick by the Chicago Blackhawks.
In many ways, the real action and drama starts at No. 2.
And the teams that don’t end up with Bedard should still be pleased with their consolation prize.
“There are some very unique players who are going to be true stars if they reach their potential,” NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr said. “This is a really deep draft class in the first round.”
The Anaheim Ducks hold the second overall selection, followed by the Columbus Blue Jackets, San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens.
An impressive array of talent at the forward position — even after Bedard — is led by No. 2 North American skater Adam Fantilli and top-ranked European counterpart Leo Carlsson, who both would be in the conversation as the top pick almost any other year.
All told, the first 17 players on NHL’s Central Scouting list of North American skaters are forwards.
The European skater list has a wrinkle because sitting at No. 2 is Matvei Michkov, a player mentioned in the same breath as Bedard at one point, but also one likely to slide down the draft board because of his contract in the Russian-based KHL that could delay his NHL arrival by a few years.
“These trends go in cycles,” Marr said of the forward-defenceman divide in 2023.
“It’s definitely the year for the skilled, speedy forwards.”
As for Canadian clubs after Montreal at No. 5, the Vancouver Canucks own the 11th pick and the Calgary Flames are slated to select 16th, followed by the Winnipeg Jets (18th) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (28th).
The Canadiens are also set to choose at No. 31, while the Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers previously dealt their first-rounders for more immediate help.
There could be significant trades involving picks and established players in the days and hours before the draft — rumours continue to fly about Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck and Ottawa sniper Alex DeBrincat — or on the arena floor in Nashville.
As for those wondering where they’ll be picked, third-ranked North American skater William Smith said it’s been difficult to stand out in such a crowded forward group.
“There’s a lot of guys that had career season,” he said. “It’s whatever the teams want.
“We did all we could.”
And while there is set to be a big run on offensive talent up front, Marr said the crop of defenceman can still have an impact, including fifth-ranked European skater David Reinbacher.
“I can’t tell you who the first defenceman is that will (get picked),” Marr said. “Very difficult this year to project.”
Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said the prudent course of action is to always select the best player available when your team’s number is called.
“If you draft for needs, by the time these guys are ready your needs could be completely different,” he said. “There’s a lot of quality forwards in this year’s draft, but there’s also some really good defenceman. Somebody may have a defenceman a lot higher than people that published their lists have them.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a little bit of a surprise.”
Vancouver GM Patrik Allvin said this is the time for scouts to shine.
“It’s like graduation,” he said. “Or Game 7.”
CARLSSON ON COLUMBUS
Many observers believe the Ducks will select Fantilli at No. 2, which would leave Carlsson on the board for the Blue Jackets.
So, what does the Swede know about Ohio’s state capital?
“Not so much,” Carlsson said with a laugh. “I know where it is on the map … that’s about it.”
While the undoubtedly talented Michkov will likely drop down the draft board because of his KHL contract, Marr said evaluating his countrymen has been a challenge because of the geopolitical situation surrounding Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“Our scouting is mostly reliant on video,” he said. “We do have a Russian scout that works for us. He’s confined to staying in Russia. But he attends games, so we do get some live reports.
“NHL clubs are in the same situation.”
RITCHIE’S OFF-ICE TALENT
Calum Ritchie, the 13th-ranked North American skater, moved up four spots on the final NHL Central Scouting list heading into the draft.
The big forward has talent both on and off the ice, with an ability to solve a Rubik’s Cube among his skills away from the rink.
“Growing up, I always found something that I kind of became obsessed with,” Ritchie said. “Hockey, obviously, was the one that stuck. The Rubik’s Cube, I just searched on YouTube and taught myself.
“Practised and practised until I figured it out.”