Connor Bedard has lived up to the hype and is the NHL’s next big thing

Connor Bedard has lived up to the hype and is the NHL’s next big thing

Canada’s Connor Bedard carries the IIHF Championship trophy as he celebrates defeating the Czech Republic in the IIHF Junior Ice Hockey Championships gold medal game in Halifax. Canada won 3-2 in overtime on January 5, 2023. Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

Long before Canada won this year’s World Junior Hockey Championships, everyone had already decided what the story was.

OK, not this story. The Ice Story.

Whether he grabbed the tournament and started shaking or instead let it slip away from him, these last two weeks would always be a showcase for Connor Bedard.

Bedard is the next big thing in the NHL. Thanks to market efficiency and visionary management, the league is now producing a next big thing for three or four years. By 2035, there will be a big thing every six months.

For obvious reasons, the World Juniors needed something other than the tournament itself to tell the story. Bedard, 17, volunteered for the job.

He did it and more. Bedard was involved in two-thirds of Canada’s goals throughout the tournament. So he wasn’t the best player on the team. He was sort of the team.

On Thursday night, Bedard was without a point as Dylan Günther scored two goals – including the winner in extra time – and an assist as Canada beat the Czech Republic 3-2.

God love him, Bedard even sounds like a hockey player. Other teenagers at the World Juniors still have a small miracle in their voices. Bedard has already mastered the rambling, unpunctuated babble of an NHL superstar. It’s the lack of stress on a particular syllable that sets it apart from other sports.

“…play bad or good in the next game, I have to prove it again. I don’t want to focus on personal success here, I mean I want another gold medal and that’s all I want…”

CORRECTS SLOVAKIA GOALTENDER ADAM GAJAN Canada’s Connor Bedard, right, reacts after scoring a goal on Slovakia goaltender Adam Gajan during first quarterfinal action of the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Halifax, Monday, January 2, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren CalabreseDarren Calabrese /The Canadian Press

So what’s the history of Halifax and Moncton?

That’s the message USA coach Rand Pecknold delivered just before Bedard helped tear Team USA apart in the semifinals: “He’s a generational player.”

Here we go. That’s the word everyone wants to hear.

We’re not halfway through the 2022-23 NHL season, but a dozen teams are already completely out of the playoff picture.

Remember when you couldn’t pronounce the word “tank”? Now you can present two races – one up and the other down.

The title down is the most difficult to arrange. The Stanley Cup is there every year, but there are only a limited number of Connor Bedards.

What do you think your team would rather be doing right now? Lose in the second round or blast the tanks and get to the bottom of the faint hope?

Put another way, would you accept a one-year playoff suspension in exchange for one in three NHL draft lottery shots on this kid?

I guess a lot more people than you would think, especially after those World Juniors.

I bet some of them would be Oilers and Leafs fans. That is, people who should know better. Like all great contras, the sport is expert at convincing its graders that while the present hasn’t worked out as they hoped, the future holds promise.

One question people don’t really ask is if that’s good for the guy who’s in the thick of it.

Obviously Bedard is about to get nice and rich. Wherever he lands (Chicago would be ideal; Columbus not so much), he becomes the prince of the city. It’s not bad work.

But that generation player lark hasn’t worked that well lately.

Jack Hughes was a generational talent, but they’re still trying to figure out which generation.

Connor McDavid was generational until he got stuck in the mud in Edmonton. Ditto for Auston Matthews in Toronto. Do you remember Nail Yakupov? Yes, me neither.

A couple of those guys were individual standouts, best-in-the-league guys. But there was one generation player in this century – Sidney Crosby. Nobody has done it since.

They’ve been going down the list of #1 picks ever since and the guy you’d probably want the most is Steven Stamkos. Few people used the word “generation” around him, but Stamkos has had such a career.

The generation player doesn’t score many highlight goals. It has been in the mix for trophies for many years in a row and has won at least a few. The NHL somehow managed to separate the two things. So much so that the word “generation” is starting to feel like a curse.

Possibly the best part of Bedard’s media career – the period in which he is universally admired and immune to criticism – has just begun and runs until October.

At least that long Bedard is perfect because he didn’t play. Theoretically, he can roll to Anaheim or San Jose, wave his arms around and those teams are automatically good.

If so, great. A few more waves and they’ll make the playoffs. And go deep. And win everything. If the arm-waving routine doesn’t work out after a few years, it’s his fault. It should be intergenerational, right?

Wayne Gretzky was the king of generations. At age 22, he made his first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. At 25 he won his second championship and within a few years he won two more.

That’s where the bar should be. When we say trans-generational, it should mean that we are larger than the previous generation. Otherwise, what is the meaning of the word? All these guys since Crosby can’t be intergenerational. You are in the same generation.

If what we’re actually saying is “the best,” how do we know that before they played in the NHL? For the sake of hype, we did things backwards.

This isn’t to blow Bedard’s mind or what he might be capable of. Getting seven points against the German junior world team doesn’t mean that you’ll also take one away from the Boston Bruins. But who knows? Bedard can single-handedly change the fate of the franchise he lands with. Based on history, probably not. But it’s possible.

At the moment Bedard is generational because he has scored a lot of goals against players who are nowhere near as good as him. This mismatch will change drastically.

It’s fairer to say that Connor Bedard is the best player in his cohort of teenagers. It’s going to be 10, 15 years before we have any sense of where he is within a generation.

Still, I’d give up the playoffs for that one-in-three chance.

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