Connor Bedard is hardly alone on the list of NHL rookies to watch this season, but no doubt the Blackhawks’ 18-year-old center owns the spotlight right now, something he commanded as “the next one” for months before Chicago made him the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.
“He’s kind of the whole package,” summed up Taylor Hall, the ex-Bruins winger, and once also a No. 1 pick (2010, Edmonton). Hall said that, by the way, not even five days into Bedard joining the Blackhawks’ varsity camp.
For all the talk of generational talent that the draft generates, albeit sporadically, Bedard truly looks as if he could deliver with freshman impact on the scale of, say, Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and, to some extent, Alex Ovechkin. Bedard is quick, shifty, fires a nasty shot, sees the sheet as if watching from the arena rafters, and puts up points (1-4–5 through four preseason games).
Legitimate argument can be made for other No. 1 picks since 2000 fitting that subjective generational tag, but McDavid, Crosby, and Ovechkin defined the term. Of the three, Crosby is probably the closest comparison to what we think we’re about to see from Bedard (in Boston for the Bruins’ opener on Wednesday). McDavid and Ovechkin are such unique, uber talents that it borders on vulcanized crime to suggest a kid currently with zero NHL time served could approach their standard. But, man, Bedard is good.
Only seven rookies have reached the 100-point mark, with Ovechkin (52-54–106) being the most recent (2005-06). Bedard has the tool kit to do it, but that’s a giant ask considering he is debuting with a club that last season was a moribund 26-49-7. Based on training camp, it looks like he’ll debut with Ryan Donato and Hall as his wingers. It could be worse, and there’s no telling how chemistry can evolve, but at initial glance, it doesn’t look like a robust, prolific trio.
A few of the other story lines headed into the Original 32′s new season:
▪ Sticking with the generational topic, will the Oilers finally fulfill their promise with McDavid, 26, in his full-flight prime? It would be great to see. Trouble is, like a lot of clubs, Edmonton didn’t have the cash to do much in the offseason. The Oilers can score a ton, but they’re still challenged when in defend mode. Their great offensive teams of the 1980s and ‘90s typically bolted down the back end at Stanley Cup time with maddening efficiency.
▪ Is it time for the Devils, flush with young talent, to take a commanding step forward? I’ll say yes. Granted, it’s hard to look past their string of failures of the last decade-plus. But they have that broad base of primo young talent that stocked Al Arbour’s roster at the onset of the great Islander run at the start of the ‘80s. One caveat: Goalie Vitek Vanecek doesn’t strike your faithful puck chronicler as a latter-day Billy Smith. But let’s see. Enthusiastic, youthful talent can go a long way.
▪ Can Bruce Cassidy’s Golden Knights follow up their June Cup with another run to the Final, or a second title? Sure. But their talent level isn’t on par with what the Penguins or Lightning had for their recent redux title performances. An intriguing subplot will be to see if Jack Eichel, 26, Vegas’s top scorer last season (66 points), builds on a season that reestablished him as one of the game’s superb talents.
▪ Will Arizona ownership finally get the land, the permits, and the local puck yokels on their side to build that hockey mecca in the desert? The long-running coyote-and-pony show has been an embarrassment for both team and league, particularly commissioner Gary Bettman. He’s not wrong to believe it can work (see: Vegas, which, on many levels, is a less-attractive market). A good fit in theory simply hasn’t met the reality. If the plug is pulled, here’s hoping another run to Atlanta isn’t Plan B. I mean, enough!
▪ Revenue, revenue, revenue. Bettman said this past week that preliminary projections suggest the coffers will support a cap increase of some $4.5 million for next season. That would be around $88 million max per club, about a 5 percent bump. The math matters little to those who fill the stands and suites, but for general managers who’ve groomed payroll in anticipation of the bump, it could make for a far more dynamic July 1 unrestricted free agency market than we saw this year.
DUCKS ALL IN A ROW
Zegras, Drysdale sign on dotted line
Less than a week after Alex Killorn exited the lineup with a fractured finger, the Ducks on Monday finalized an extension (three years at $5.75 million per) with ex-Boston University forward Trevor Zegras, thus ending the slick center’s 12-day absence from training camp.
Killorn, brought aboard as a pricey (four years, $25 million) UFA hire in July after his 11-year run in Tampa, could be sidelined until mid-November. The Ducks are still in rebuild mode, but if they have any chance at picking off a wild-card spot, they must avoid falling into the abyss in the 19 games prior to Thanksgiving.
Zegras, 22, among the league’s wave of dazzling young forwards, led Anaheim in scoring last season (23-42–65). New coach Greg Cronin will be looking for all of that and more — specifically, greater attention to detail, structure, and a more responsible 200-foot approach. All without muting Zegras’s bountiful creativity. Always a tricky balance when asking creative freelancers to embrace north-south conformity.
Killorn (Harvard, 2012) was Anaheim GM Pat Verbeek’s most significant UFA get on July 1. While many in Killorn’s mid-30s age group, or even younger, scrambled to find work, the ex-Lightning standout signed the richest deal of his career (a jump from $4.45 million annually to $6.25 million). Aiding the left winger’s bargaining position: a career best 27-37–64 last season.
Zegras will be 25, still short of reaching unrestricted free agency, when his new deal expires. But with predictions that the cap will boost some $10 million by then (possibly closing in on $95 million), he could be shopping in the $10 million AAV neighborhood on an eight-year contract, provided he continues to build on his production.
Young Ducks blue liner Jamie Drysdale, another RFA, came to terms (three years, $2.3 million per) on a new deal. RFAs must agree to contract terms by Dec. 1 or remain sidelined for the season. As the weekend approached, Ottawa center Shane Pinto remained the lone high-profile RFA yet to come in from the sun.
Lightning have hole to patch in net
For now, the Lightning hope a couple of little-known prospects can provide adequate cover to their huge void in net while No. 1 stopper Andrei Vasilevskiy recovers from recent surgery to repair a herniated disk in his lower back.
Veteran Brian Elliott was Vasilevskiy’s seldom-used backup the last two seasons, but the Lightning, squeezed on cap space, did not bring him back. Still unsigned, Elliott could be an option, perhaps along with ex-Bruin Jaroslav Halak, still on the market after his 10-9-5 season as backup to Rangers No. 1 Igor Shesterkin.
The top (read: only) candidates on hand in Tampa: Jonas Johansson, Hugo Alnefelt, and Matt Tomkins. They have a combined NHL résumé of 36 games.
While the Golden Knights won the Cup with a pair of backups (Adin Hill and Laurent Brossoit), that’s a risky approach to covering the most important position on the ice. It can work. But the odds aren’t great.
Keith Kinkaid, who spent virtually all of last season at AHL Providence, other than one game with the Bruins varsity and one with Colorado after being traded at the deadline, would be an ideal relief man. But he signed a two-way deal ($350.000 guaranteed) to return to the Devils and GM Tom Fitzgerald isn’t likely to offer a lifeline to rival Lightning GM Julien BriseBois.
“For the time being,” BriseBois told the Tampa media, he’ll stick with finding a fix among his unknown trio.
Penguins turn to Karlsson for power boost
Erik Karlsson’s arrival in Pittsburgh, following the big offseason swap with San Jose, will have the sublime Swedish backliner regularly manning the power-play point, which has long been Kris Letang’s domain with what are now Fenway Sports Group’s flightless birds.
Look for Letang, a right shot, to shift to the left shoulder/elbow, along with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and eventually Jake Guentzel up front. Guentzel underwent ankle surgery in August and could miss the first two weeks of the season.
Most of all, coach Mike Sullivan is looking for a lot more movement from a PP unit that too often stagnated in 2022-23, the Penguins clicking at only 21.7 percent (14th overall) when a man up. Consider this, however, when weighing how much a proficient power play factors in a club’s success: The Bruins last season established a league record for wins (65) and points (135) and did that with a power play that ranked 12th (22.2 percent).
The Bruins, with 62 power-play goals, ran off with the Presidents’ Trophy with their mark of 65-12-5. The Penguins, with 63 PPGs, went 40-31-11 and were playoff DNQs for the first time since 2006.
Return to Chicago could suit Kane
There has been nary a whisper about it around Chicago, but as free agent Patrick Kane continues to build back from offseason hip surgery, the idea of him riding on Connor Bedard’s right side seems too tantalizing for any of the parties to refuse. The Blackhawks have $13.8 million in available cap space, the most in the league.
Kane, who will be 35 in November, was traded out of Chicago at the February deadline and finished out the season with the Rangers. He is a sure-shot Hall of Famer (1,180 games, 1,237 points), showed with the Rangers that he still has game, and has lived the whole dazzling-rookie/franchise-savior thing in Chicago.
The Sabres, with about $8.8 million in available cap space, likely would be aggressive bidders once Kane is ready to sign. Kane would be a great get for the Bruins, too, although their lineup at center probably wouldn’t appeal to him on the scale of partnering with Bedard.
Not surprisingly, the Canadiens last weekend shipped Austrian-born defenseman David Reinbacher back to Kloten, his club in the Swiss League. Nick Bobrov, Montreal’s director of amateur scouting, noted here a week ago that he believes that it’s best to “overcook Euros” in their home environment before they begin their full-immersion NHL experience. Reinbacher, the fifth pick in June’s draft, looked solid and smart during his 10-plus days of varsity camp, suggesting he could be an impact player for the Habs when he’s ready to come back full time in a year or two . . . Only five of the 225 players selected in the 2022 draft played in the NHL last season, totaling 53 games. By season’s end, only 18 players from the 2021 draft (224 selections) had played in the league. Which is to remind everyone, once again, that drafting 18-year-olds is most of all an exercise in projection and patience . . . Ex-Bruin Nick Foligno, now with the Blackhawks, continued his mayoral ways, inviting Bedard to his house for dinner. Bedard spent much of the time with a miniature stick in hand, mixing it up in knee hockey with the three Foligno kids — Milana, 9; Landon, 8; and Hudson, 6. “Sad,” said Foligno, “that I’m not even their favorite player anymore.” His rights shipped to Chicago in the deal with Taylor Hall, Foligno promptly signed a one-year deal for $4 million. Not bad. He will be 36 on Oct. 31 and scored a $200,000 raise over the deal he signed with the Bruins. If the Blackhawks fizzle, he’d be a candidate to be dealt at the deadline . . . Conor Geekie, a 6-foot-3-inch center and younger brother of Bruins pivot Morgan Geekie, was sent back to junior by the Coyotes last weekend. Conor, the 11th pick in the 2022 draft, has been tutored in recent years at WHL Winnipeg by coach James Patrick, who logged 1,280 games as a defenseman over 21 NHL seasons. The Winnipeg franchise was sold in the spring and set up shop in Wenatchee, Wash., where owners David and Lisa White hired 64-year-old Kevin Constantine (ex-coach of the Sharks, Penguins, and Devils) to replace Patrick. Meanwhile, for transgressions not fully known, the WHL this past week suspended Constantine for at least one year. “Derogatory comments of a discriminatory nature,” read the WHL media release . . . William Rousseau, the goalie invitee who caught some eyes among the Bruins brass during last month’s Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, reported directly to Rouyn Noranda in the QMJHL and went 0-0-3 with a 3.70 goals-against average and .887 save percentage in his first three starts. “Good goalie, moves around really well,” said Mike Dunham, the Bruins’ goalie development coach. “He squares himself up. He’s in control of his game. Good skater. I liked how he got in position, squared up, and it made it easier for him to control rebounds.” Rousseau remains an unsigned junior, and the Bruins, noted Dunham, will continue to have scouts monitor his progress. “Right now, we have enough goalies,” said Dunham. “You can never have enough, right? But we have enough — today.” . . . Rousseau’s grandfather is Bobby Rousseau, 83, the former right winger for the Canadiens, North Stars, and Rangers. He wrapped up with the Rangers in 1974-75, which was the last full season that Brad Park and Jean Ratelle spent on Broadway prior to being traded to the Bruins . . . Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman will be signing autographs ($69 a pop) at Sportsworld, 184 Broadway in Saugus, Oct. 15, 12-2 p.m. . . . James Dolan, chairman and CEO of the Madison Square Garden empire (Rangers, Knicks, the Garden, the cable network, et al), is the guy who came up with the idea to build the MSG Sphere, the magnificent entertainment venue in Las Vegas that was opened last weekend by Irish rockers U2. Total construction cost: $2.3 billion (just a tick below the NHL maximum payroll this season of $2.672 billion). The Sphere is 366 feet high and 516 feet wide with 17,600 seats. Dolan, 68, came up with the idea some seven years ago, sketching a stick person inside a circle on the back of a notebook. Et voila. He might want to keep putting thoughts to paper. His Knicks (1973) and Rangers (1994) have gone a combined 79 years without a championship. Gonna need a bigger notebook.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.