Exceptional Connor Bedard’s play leaves no doubt he’ll succeed in WHL

North Vancouver's Connor Bedard. (Garrett James/CSSHL Media)

EDMONTON — So why, after all these years, does Connor Bedard become the first Western Canadian to be granted ‘exceptional player status?’ What makes him so special?

Because he is, by all accounts, simply that good.

For starters, as a 14-year-old playing at the U-17 level in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League — which stretches from British Columbia to Manitoba — the North Vancouver centreman was named the league’s most valuable player.

At age 14, he won the scoring title with 43-41-84 in 36 games. That’s an average of 2.3 points and 1.2 goals per game, playing against 15- and 16-year-olds.

That, Hockey Canada felt, will translate at the Western Hockey League level, where Bedard — whose father works in the B.C. logging industry — will line up against 16-20-year-olds next year in the WHL.

“I know the decision to apply (for exceptional player status) was a lot more difficult than people would think,” said his head coach at the West Vancouver Academy, Steve Marr. “It wasn’t just an automatic (decision) for the Bedards. They’re an extremely down-to-earth family. They don’t want the spotlight, and it wasn’t about being in the limelight.

“But it’s just the success he’s had at younger levels,” Marr continued. “He played first year Bantam as a Pee Wee. He played Bantam Prep (mostly 14-year-olds) as a 13-year-old… The decision (to apply) was made in November so they could see first off all how the start of his year for our team would go, and right out of the gate he showed the ability to be the best player in our league. It was a legitimate hockey decision, given his skill set, his vision, and the way he plays the game … to get to a place that would be the best for his development.”

Hockey Canada announced its decision on Tuesday, one day before the WHL draft lottery was held. The last place Swift Current Broncos predictably won the lottery, but their pick had previously been traded away, so it is the Regina Pats who will almost certainly select Bedard with the first overall pick in the Apr. 22 Bantam Draft.

While Bedard received ‘exceptional player status,’ it’s a rare decision out West. Two other players — forwards Brayden Yager and Riley Heidt, both of the Saskatoon Contacts — have not received word that their application was accepted.

“We would take all three,” Warriors Assistant General Manager Jason Ripplinger said on the WHL site. “All three are special players, they’re all different, they all bring a skill level, they compete, they’re smart and they can skate.”

The question is an obvious one: Can a 15-year-old survive on the ice with teenagers — and a few 20-year-olds — who are bigger, stronger and more mature physically? Will the WHL eat that player alive? Or is it truly the best place for him to develop, having clearly reaped everything he can out of Midget hockey?

A season ago, St. Albert, Alta.’s Matthew Savoie was denied exceptional status. He was drafted by the WHL’s Winnipeg Ice as a 15-year-old — the QMJHL and OHL draft players at 16 years of age — and went to a Winnipeg Academy that is run by the Ice. Savoie was called up to play 22 WHL games for Winnipeg, and his totals (0-7-7) would suggest that the denial of ‘exceptional player status’ was probably an accurate decision.

Bedard is a five-foot-eight, 165-pound right-shot centreman. He turns 15 in July, and is already represented by the Newport Sports Management, a whale in the hockey agent industry.

“He’s thick, so he’s going to be able to take the punishment, and he’s a powerful skater with really good puck skills, obviously,” said Jamie Porter, the Director of Scouting for the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings. “The one concern that showed up last year was, you’re going to take some punishment because you’re going to be that much younger than everybody. And I think that showed up with Savoie. I’m assuming Hockey Canada thinks that won’t be as big an issue for Bedard. He’s a little tank — I heard someone say the other day that he has a (Steven) Stamkos build to him. It’s not a stretch.”

“I have zero doubts that he will have success,” said Marr. “Yes, he’s five-foot-eight, 165 pounds, but he’s a pretty thick 165 pounds. As far as how he’ll handle the bigger bodies at that level, he’s got a pretty good base on his centre of gravity. He doesn’t get knocked around easily. He’s very strong in his core, his legs and his stability — and he’s strong on his edges. From that aspect, he won’t have issues.

“I’m a Western Hockey League alumni. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll have a lot of success next year as a 15-year-old.”

Marr got an eyeful this year of Bedard, who crushed it as a player playing against kids two years older than himself.

“His obvious skills sets are an unbelievable shot, and an unbelievable ability to stickhandle through guys,” Marr said. “But an under-rated aspect is his ability to use his teammates, which spreads the ice open so he can utilize his skill sets more. He creates space, whereas a lot of kids with those skills, they’ll try to do it all themselves.

“And his shot is so good that one of the overlooked attributes is his ability to pass the puck and find teammates through seams that most, if not all players can’t.”

The OHL has seen five players who were granted ‘exceptional player status’: John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid, Sean Day, and Shane Wright. Detroit Red Wings draft pick Joe Veleno is the lone example in the QMJHL.

Connor Bedard is the first ever ‘exceptional player’ out West.

This will be fun to watch.

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