What exactly makes Connor Bedard so ridiculously good?
All of Chicago has been wondering that — and waiting for their first chance to determine the answer — ever since the 18-year-old forward billed as hockey’s next superstar landed on the Blackhawks.
Hawks players and coaches have been wondering the same thing. The first two days of training camp this week offered their long-awaited opportunity to find out, and they’ve watched him closely.
It’s already safe to say they’ve been -impressed by what they’ve seen.
“He’s unbelievable,” forward MacKenzie Entwistle said.
Since coach Luke Richardson and the 54 non-Bedard players at camp have proved much more eager to praise Bedard than he is to praise himself, their analyses of his game offer the best insights yet — at least until the regular season starts and his talent gets put on display for the entire world.
For example, comparisons to Penguins star Sidney Crosby — Bedard’s idol, as well as his opponent in that upcoming first game — were frequent all summer, but Richardson offered a specific, supportable comparison based on Bedard’s and Crosby’s similar skating styles and low centers of gravity.
“[Bedard is] wired where he knows how to bounce off people that are coming at him and spin off, like Crosby, and use that as a propellant,” Richardson said. “I’m not comparing him to Crosby, but he uses a technique like that as [a smaller] player.”
That ability to not only withstand contact but also use it to his advantage should ease any concerns about Bedard’s 5-10 height necessitating a longer adjustment period to the size and physicality of the NHL.
He might be 18 and look more like 15, but below his neck, he actually looks more like 25. He’s incredibly muscular, filled-out and solid. Richardson, quite the fitness freak himself at 54, would know.
“He’s built,” Richardson said. “He’s got the baby face and the young grin and the cool hairdo, but he’s mature beyond his years and he knows what’s going on out there. He’s built really low and wide — very much like you [would] describe [how] a lot of Russian players skate, with great balance on his feet.”
Hawks defenseman Connor Murphy, who enjoyed (or endured) some extra time defending (or failing to defend) Bedard in player-organized practices earlier this month, observed how Bedard creates ample space for himself in the offensive zone.
The fact Murphy is 6-4 — six inches taller — hasn’t mattered.
“He seems to have a really good knack of hiding the puck in areas away from defenders,” Murphy said. “He can hold it wide against his body, and he’s good at stopping on his edges and opening his hips up to really create space away from defenders’ sticks.
“To have that knowledge about how to create separation and protect the puck against good defenders, that’s going to do him a lot of good. It’s going to create those opportunities for him to get that shot off, which is obviously his biggest strength.”
Entwistle has watched Bedard’s highlights on social media since last year’s world junior championships, making him no stranger to his highlight-reel skills.
Still, Entwistle has been impressed by a subtler part of Bedard’s game that wasn’t fully identifiable until recently. It reminds him of one of Patrick Kane’s most renowned tools.
“[Connor is] so good at making you look where he wants you to look and put your stick where he wants you to put it,” Entwistle said. “Then he knows, ‘OK, I’ll make him look here,’ when he knows that his play is there. He’s good at making the defender do what he wants.
“That’s a pretty special skill. Guys work on that all summer long, and it’s tough. But Kane was so good at that, too — just looking and looking and then being able to slip a pass past a guy.”
Bedard’s ability to read a situation instantaneously and think one or two moves ahead of everybody else makes Richardson think of Golden Knights star Mark Stone, whom he coached as an AHL prospect.
Stone, as an elite pickpocket but merely average skater, thought ahead far enough to know what plays he could make with the puck as soon as he stole it from an unsuspecting opponent. Richardson believes Bedard utilizes the same mindset, just in a more offensive way.
“[He’s] changing his angles to move people around so he can make a pass or take a shot,” Richardson said. “It’s hard to defend because you know he’s such a great shooter, but he’s got great vision and makes good plays, too.”
Out of all of Bedard’s traits, though, there’s no question that his aforementioned shot — his insanely quick, insanely powerful, insanely accurate shot — is his finest.
Seeing that shot in-person awed Hawks forward Tyler Johnson. He compared Bedard’s shifty skating style to Lightning star Nikita Kucherov, but he insisted Bedard’s unique shooting technique is utterly incomparable.
“[With] the way his release is, how quick it is and the angle [he uses], it’s something I’ve never seen before,” Johnson said, eyes wide. “There are guys that have really good releases and everything, but the way he does it is a little bit different than everybody.”
Bedard’s first of three goals in last weekend’s prospects tournament thoroughly displayed the deceptiveness and quickness of his shooting release. To execute it, he pulled his stick toward his body at the last second to maneuver around a Blues defenseman before unleashing a top-corner snipe.
Watching from the stands that night, Richardson felt like he actually was watching Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, who does the same thing sometimes from the opposite side of the ice (as a left-handed shot, versus Bedard being right-handed). Richardson plans to design and teach the Hawks a couple set plays on offensive-zone faceoffs this season, which will be designed to give Bedard shooting chances like that one.
Meanwhile, Entwistle recently caught himself gawking at Bedard’s stick. He noticed it’s a 70-flex, which is extremely flexible — or “whippy,” as players call it. Entwistle, for comparison, uses an 85-flex; he joked he personally would have no chance to even “corral” the puck with a 70-flex.
Bedard’s defensive abilities, while not his calling card, also have impressed Richardson. On a line with Tyler Johnson and Ryan Donato while Taylor Hall recovers from injury, Bedard has looked engaged during drills in all three zones.
“[He’s] very aware on tracking and looking around,” Richardson said. “He plays the game with some calmness, and he’s very visual out there. He sees the ice well — obviously as an offensive player, but he does that well defensively, as well.”
Richardson tends to stress defense first, so that defensive reliability should help Bedard stay in his new coach’s good graces.
Then again, so will everything else. The Hawks’ collective amazement after two days is telling of just how good Bedard is — even by NHL standards — in every regard.