Connor Bedard’s world juniors could put NHL tanking in hyperdrive: LeBrun

There seems to be little question that this is the kind of prospect an NHL franchise should go all-out tank-a-palooza for.

There is always risk in overreacting to a player’s world juniors performance, to the good and the bad, but what we’ve seen so far from Connor Bedard is mind-blowing, from the staggering 21 points in five games to the latest heroics, sending Canada to the quarters Monday with an overtime goal they’ll replay forever.

And if you’re one of those cellar-dwelling teams in the NHL standings, it certainly fortifies what you probably already felt about the player.

“My first draft with Ottawa was already back in 1995, albeit in a part-time role,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told The Athletic on Monday morning. “First thing I learned from John Ferguson Sr., my first scouting boss, was to look for guys who ‘want to make a difference.’

“I think we can all agree on Bedard’s ability/talent — but that he wants to make a difference almost every shift is exceptional.

“Exceptional players win championships.”

The injury-riddled Jackets, last in the Eastern Conference standings, will have a shot at him in the draft lottery, along with the Blackhawks, Ducks, Sharks, Coyotes, Canadiens and Flyers, among others.

I say among “others” because there’s lots of hockey left and time for teams to stumble down the standings and enter the Bedard-lottery fray. What about the Blues after the injury news Monday regarding Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko?

What will be interesting to follow in the next few weeks is how quickly some of those teams start to trade away players ahead of the March 3 deadline.

As they do, of course part of the aim will be recouping futures-type assets. But the other benefit, especially with the trades that happen sooner rather than later, will be to further weaken those teams’ current NHL rosters and help fortify the draft lottery chances.

Like, the Coyotes have probably won more games than they truly wanted to so far. Does that add any urgency in trading away Jakob Chychrun as soon as an acceptable offer is on the table? Um, even if nobody with the Coyotes will say it publicly, I’m here to tell you the answer is an emphatic yes.

Because Bedard is worth the fuss.

“At this age, best prospect since Crosby,” said one long-time NHL team executive with a scouting background, who requested anonymity. “Elite skill is one element, but the ability to rise to the occasion is something that you rarely see. He has done it internationally and in the WHL. Seems to love a challenge to him personally or on a team level.”

Added an NHL GM on Monday, who also requested anonymity: “He is a generational talent and has proven that for several years, despite his age. I expect Connor Bedard to be a foundational piece for whichever organization is fortunate enough to draft him.”

Again, I’m always leery about overstating world juniors performances, either way. But what we’re seeing is something else.

Is Bedard the best prospect since at least Auston Matthews?

“Best since McDavid,” Craig Button, TSN’s senior director of scouting, told me Monday morning without hesitation.

“I don’t want to lose the meaning of ‘generational’ by using it too much, right? If we have generational players every three years, then it slips, right? I think we saw (Bedard) as a franchise superstar, you know. But I’m having a difficult time defending not having him as a generational player.

“Because if there was anybody that straddles the line, it’s certainly him. And he has done nothing to not have us think that he’s pushing over the line.”

Button never thought Matthews, for example, was a generational player. A superstar yes, but generational, no.

“Bedard? He’s giving me a lot of pause for reflection,” Button said over the phone from Moncton, New Brunswick.

Button has watched decades’ worth of world juniors tournaments.

“(Peter) Forsberg dominated the 1993 tournament; he was 19 years old,” Button said. “I’ve seen 19-year-olds dominate the tournament. I haven’t seen a player this young dominate the tournament. Now, (Jaromir) Jagr was great in 1990, but he didn’t dominate it. He was damn good as a 17-year-old, but he didn’t dominate it.

“It’s not even close between Bedard and everybody else here.”

On the flip side, I got a bit cautious of an answer from The Athletic’s well-respected prospects expert Corey Pronman Monday morning when I asked him if Bedard was the best prospect he had seen since Matthews.

“Big question on Bedard is whether he’s an NHL center or not,” Pronman said. “That may end up slotting him behind Matthews, (Nathan) MacKinnon, etc, at the same age.”

Legendary draft guru Bob McKenzie, my friend and colleague from TSN, has been around the world juniors and the NHL Draft for a long, long time.

“All I know is, he’s special,” McKenzie said over the phone from Halifax. “Now, where that shakes out exactly, I don’t know. But he’s special. And he’s more special than I thought he was when I saw him in the summer. He’s got the elite, elite shot. He shoots the puck like Auston Matthews right now, as a 17-year-old. He’s got the best shot I’ve ever seen out of anybody coming out of junior hockey. I’ve never seen anybody shoot the puck the way this kid shoots it. So the shot is what separates him from absolutely everybody else that he plays against in terms of his peers.”

But there’s obviously more.

“I also think he’s got elite hockey sense. I think he’s got the ability to see the ice and make plays,” McKenzie continued. “I think he demonstrated that in the last couple of games here with some the assists that he’s had.

“I said this on the air: He’s not as big as Mario (Lemieux), he’s not as powerful and complete as Sid (Crosby), he’s not as fast as Connor McDavid, he’s not a prototypical center, he might be a winger more than a center in the National Hockey League — I don’t know but that’s a distinct possibility — but all I know is whatever ‘it’ is, he’s got it. And he’s got a lot of it.”

So don’t be surprised if some of the lottery teams start their trade deadline selloff a bit sooner than usual this season. Because the motivation to cement the best possible odds for the lottery has taken on a whole new level of urgency after Bedard’s world junior performance.

(Photo: Darren Calabrese / The Canadian Press via AP)

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