Connor Bedard has been a topic of conversation around hockey circles for nearly five years already.
He was labeled the “future of hockey” back in 2018 when he was terrorizing bantam goaltenders as a 13-year-old, and was the first player ever to receive exceptional status in the Western Hockey League. Since then, Bedard has only improved his stock in the eyes of the NHL, putting himself in all-time elite company with a 71-goal, 143-point season for the Regina Pats this past year.
His nine-goal, 23-point performance in seven games for Canada at the 2023 world junior championship was the most ever by a player under the age of 18, breaking the previous record set by Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr more than 30 years ago.
For much of the season, the discourse around Bedard has been less about whether he will be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft and more about where he stands among the generational talents of the current NHL landscape. Suffice it to say, the general consensus around Bedard is that this is a player who should be a superstar from the minute he reaches the NHL, a player most comparable with the Connor McDavids and Sidney Crosbys of the league as a prospect.
In analytical models, Bedard’s player comparisons are certainly of that caliber:
So while it’s been a foregone conclusion as to where Bedard will play ever since the Chicago Blackhawks won the NHL Draft Lottery, the question now is what he can become for fantasy purposes in Year 1. Can Bedard reach the point-per-game and beyond paces posted by Crosby and McDavid in their historic rookie seasons? Or should we temper expectations for the 17-year-old phenom and not take the risk early in our fantasy drafts?
When trying to estimate the possible range of outcomes for an incoming rookie, there are three different aspects that factor into the evaluation: 1) The player’s individual talent 2) the level of talent they will be playing with and 3) the role they are likely to play on their new team. I use this framework to craft my personal NHL projections each year, and while projecting incoming rookies is always a bit of a guessing game, we need to start with a plan.
Bedard’s talent is unquestionable as we’ve already reviewed. This is a player who is worthy of being mentioned alongside Auston Matthews and Nathan Mackinnon as a franchise-altering-level prospect and whose closest statistical comparisons are all Hall-of-Fame caliber players. From a pure talent perspective, there's no reason to believe Bedard couldn’t reach point-per-game levels or even higher in the right situation.
Unfortunately for Bedard, this Blackhawks roster may not represent a great or even average situation. The Blackhawks have traded away nearly every player of note on their roster over the last couple of years, and while they’ve been rewarded for their choices with the chance to select Bedard, their current roster is not much better than a lot of AHL teams.
They did take a step in the right direction (at least for Bedard’s fantasy value) in trading for former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall on Monday, but they’ll need to make a few more similar moves before you can feel even somewhat comfortable with Bedard’s prospective linemates.
Bedard will undoubtedly be the Blackhawks’ most talented player from Day 1, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll immediately step into a 20-plus minute per night role. Matthews skated an average of 17:37 in his rookie season, Patrick Kane averaged 18:21 and even Connor McDavid only saw 18:53 per game in his inaugural campaign. While Bedard is a lock to play on the top power-play unit, I’d guess that he averages somewhere between 18 and 19 minutes per game in his rookie year. Those are good minutes, but not the 20:50 per game Sidney Crosby used to score 102 points in his rookie season.
How high should Bedard go in fantasy drafts?
Assuming the Blackhawks do indeed bring in another winger (or two) of some offensive talent to play alongside Bedard, I’ll be cautiously optimistic that he can eclipse the 70-point mark. Something along the lines of Kane’s 72-point rookie campaign back in 2007-08 seems within reach for a player of Bedard’s talent despite the less-than-ideal circumstances of the team around him.
There’s also at least some chance he blows up for a point per game or better despite the lack of surrounding talent, counterbalanced by some possibility that carrying an entire franchise proves to be just a little too much for the soon-to-be 18-year-old and he posts a solid but unspectacular 55-60 point effort.
All things told, I’ll be relatively interested in Bedard after the true top-tier talents are off the board — the what-if of his sky-high potential is something that you usually can’t ascribe to the average player you’ll be taking in the fifth round of your fantasy draft.
If I’ve had a strong draft through the first four rounds and I’m deciding between Bedard’s upside and the enigma of Patrik Laine, I’ll likely swing for the fences with Bedard. But if Bedard’s name value drives him up into a higher echelon and he starts to go in the Jake Guentzel or Sebastian Aho area of the draft, I’m going to stick with the proven talents in that spot.
In the end, it will be incredibly exciting to watch Bedard’s progression in the league and every fantasy manager will need to come to some sort of conclusion about where they’ll be comfortable drafting him come September.
Conclusion: Bedard’s upside as a legitimate generational talent warrants a swing in the fifth or sixth round if others are deterred by the sub-optimal team setting.
Nate Groot Nibbelink is the creator of Apples & Ginos Fantasy Hockey and the originator of the #ZeroG draft strategy. You can find him pontificating about obscure fantasy hockey strategy topics in the Apples & Ginos Discord Server or on Twitter @applesginos.