LAS VEGAS – Connor Bedard is getting a sneak peek into what he hopes will be his future.
The no-brainer No. 1 pick at the NHL Draft later this month had his eyes opened when he and fellow top prospects Adam Fantilli, Leo Carlsson and Will Smith touched down in Las Vegas for the first time.
Here to take in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, Bedard was at first struck by the slot machines ringing in the airport. Then by the sheer number of surname-branded sticks each member of the Vegas Golden Knights had stacked at the club’s spacious Summerlin practice facility, which the teenagers toured Monday morning.
Bedard got a glimpse of the players’ parking lot, too.
“The cars were pretty nuts,” Bedard said.
Smith pinpoints “pulling in, seeing Lamborghinis” as the moment where it all sank in: Oh, this is what life in the show will be like.
Carlsson was blown away that the Knights had two team chefs whipping up an assortment of food.
And Fantilli was tickled at the chance to chop it up with Jack Eichel, a player he idolized growing up, took a similar rout as an NCAA star and one he could well follow as No. 2 overall choice.
Walking the bowels of T-Mobile Arena and meeting the players who are four wins or fewer away from hoisting the Stanley Cup gets the kids thinking how they could help bring their rebuilding team to the same stage.
“We dream and we have those goals, for sure,” Bedard said.
Projected as the greatest hockey talent since that other Connor, Bedard will descend in Nashville with a support group of 30-some friends, family members and former coaches.
He watched last month’s draft lottery with a big crew as well. And on that night, he learned he would be joining the Chicago Blackhawks — even if he refuses to act presumptuous.
“You don’t find out till the draft, of course. And if they decide to take me, that’d be unbelievable,” Bedard said. “But we’ll see what happens.”
Panthers coach Paul Maurice spotted All-Star-turned fourth-liner Eric Staal chatting up Bedard & Co., and sensed an opportunity to share wisdom.
Maurice coached an 18-year-old Staal — the second-overall pick in 2003 — in Carolina. He told the ’23 prospects that he could see what a young Staal wanted to do on the ice, but his still-developing body wouldn’t allow him to right away. Maurice reminded that Staal scored just 11 goals as a rookie, but two seasons later exploded for 45.
“I just talked a little bit about his progression, about him coming back to the game and our team, and was willing to change,” Maurice said.
“And then Radko Gudas walked by, and I just said, ‘That’s why it’s really important you learn how to keep your eyes up when you handle the puck.’”
Fantilli is unique in that he holds gold medals from the 2023 world junior championships and the 2023 world championships, representing Canada at both levels within months.
At the worlds, he would probe Milan Lucic and Tyler Toffoli for knowledge and soak up the veterans’ advice. The confident Fantilli singles out Matthew Tkachuk as the current NHLer he would most like to model his game after.
Tkachuk, the sixth-overall pick in 2016, was once in the same shoes as these guys, attending the Penguins-Sharks final in San Jose. What resonated with an 18-year-old Tkachuk was that loaded Sharks squad — Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau — had been a contender forever, but that was their first final.
“What I didn’t know is just how hard it would be to get to this point,” Tkachuk said.
The advice Tkachuk and Eichel — graduating from guests of the Cup Final to stars of the thing — gave to Bedard, Fantilli, Smith and Carlsson heading into their own draft night was simple.
“Enjoy it,” Fantilli said.
“A lot of guys said it flew by and they kinda blacked out when they heard their name called.”