Connor Bedard – officially – is a member of the Chicago Blackhawks.
The team did the expected Wednesday night, selecting the 17-year-old phenom with the No. 1 pick at the NHL draft.
Bedard heading to the Windy City had been all but assured after Chicago jumped two spots to win May’s draft lottery.
The five-foot-10, 185-pound centre with a bullet shot and awe-inspiring skill tore up the Western Hockey League with 143 points in 57 games for the Regina Pats in 2022-23.
Bedard also led Canada to gold with a record-breaking performance at the world junior hockey championship, and won a number of individual awards in a memorable season that culminated on the stage at Bridgestone Arena.
THE MOMENT 🥳🥳🥳 pic.twitter.com/M6fiGZbjPy
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) June 28, 2023
Mentioned in the same breath as previous generational talents, including Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, the North Vancouver product joins a rebuilding Chicago team that waved goodbye to franchise icons and three-time Stanley Cup champions Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in recent months.
“It still doesn’t feel real, to be honest,” said Bedard. “It’s so crazy. It’s an unbelievable feeling to be here with my family and friends, and get to hear my name be called and experience that, especially with such a storied organization. Everything I’ve heard about the city, the people there is nothing but positive. I can’t wait for that.
“Very thankful (the Blackhawks) put their faith in me.”
The Blackhawks made a significant move in the days leading up to the draft to support Bedard’s transition to the NHL, acquiring veteran forwards Taylor Hall and Nick Foligno from the Boston Bruins.
Foligno, 35, then signed a one-year contract extension instead of hitting unrestricted free agency. The 31-year-old Hall, who was the top pick in 2010 and won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP in 2018, has two years left on his current deal.
The Anaheim Ducks, who finished with the league’s worst record in 2022-23, took Swedish centre Leo Carlsson second overall before the Columbus Blue Jackets chose University of Michigan counterpart Adam Fantilli — a native of Nobleton, Ont., and Bedard’s world junior teammate — at No. 3.
The San Jose Sharks grabbed American centre Will Smith with the fourth pick.
The Montreal Canadiens were up next and selected Austrian defenceman David Reinbacher to round out the top-5 of a deep draft at the forward position.
Matvei Michkov, viewed by many as the second-best player in the draft behind Bedard, slid down the board to the Philadelphia Flyers at No. 7, due in large part to his professional contract in the Russian-based KHL that could delay his NHL arrival by a few years — or longer.
The Vancouver Canucks selected Tom Willander with the No. 11 pick.
Willander, a six-foot-one, 180-pound defenceman, had 25 points (four goals, 21 assists) in 39 games for Rogle BK’s under-20 team in Sweden.
The 18-year-old Swede grew up a Canucks fan thanks to countrymen Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
Willander has committed to join the NCAA’s Boston University as a freshman next season.
The Canucks missed the playoffs last season for a third consecutive year after going 38-37-7 and finishing sixth in the Pacific division. They went 20-12-4 after head coach Rick Tocchet replaced Bruce Boudreau in January.
Vancouver is set to make six more selections, starting with No. 75, when the draft continues with Rounds 2-7 on Thursday.
General manager Patrik Allvin had spoken about the possibility of trading up in the draft order but the team opted to stay at the 11th overall pick.
🗣️ TOM WILLANDER IS A VANCOUVER CANUCK! pic.twitter.com/X0wCry04VS
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) June 29, 2023
The Calgary Flames took Slovakian forward Samuel Honzek 16th and the Winnipeg Jets picked Owen Sound Attack winger Colby Barlow at 18.
The Toronto Maple Leafs drafted London Knights forward Easton Cowan 28th to round out the Canadian teams. Both the Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators did not have first-round picks this year.
The host Nashville Predators took Nanaimo’s Matthew Wood with the 15th overall choice. Wood formerly played in the B.C. Hockey League with the Victoria Grizzlies before moving on to the University of Connecticut. Fellow BCHL product Bradley Nadeau of the Penticton Vees was taken 30th by the Carolina Hurricanes.
"I really loved my time in Victoria. I had some really great years there. Those seasons really helped prepare me for college. I’m really grateful to that organization, my coaches and my teammates, all the experiences I had there."
-Matthew Wood on his time in the BCHL pic.twitter.com/jgv5YLB6w4
— BCHL (@BCHockeyLeague) June 29, 2023
Bedard’s coronation — just steps from Nashville’s famed Broadway strip where country music starts blaring at 11 a.m. and the party doesn’t end until the wee hours of the morning — opens the next chapter in one of the hockey’s world most-watched young careers.
Set to turn 18 on July 17, Bedard started garnering national attention five years ago.
He was granted exceptional status to become the first player to suit up in the WHL at age 15.
The COVID-19 pandemic cut his rookie season in Regina short, but he still managed 12 goals and 28 points in 15 games.
Bedard scored 51 goals and 100 points in 62 contests as a 16-year-old in 2021-22 before finding the back of the net a jaw-dropping 71 times in a 2022-23 campaign where it often looked like the sniper was simply toying with the opposition.
He set national and tournament records at this year’s world juniors with 14 assists and 23 points in just seven games on the way to being named the showcase event’s MVP.
Bedard, who also helped Canada capture gold at the 2022 world juniors, set another record when he won player of the year, top prospect and top scorer honours in the Canadian Hockey League — a first in a single season.
The day began with some no-draft moves, including the New Jersey Devils signing pending restricted free agent forward Timo Meier to an eight-year contract extension before the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired winger Reilly Smith from the Vegas Golden Knights for a 2024 third-round pick.
Vegas then signed pending unrestricted free agent forward Ivan Barbashev to a five-year contract extension.
1. Chicago, Connor Bedard, C, Regina (WHL).
2. Anaheim, Leo Carlsson, C, Orebro (Sweden).
3. Columbus, Adam Fantilli, C, Michigan (NCAA).
4. San Jose, Will Smith, C, USA U-18 (NTDP).
5. Montreal, David Reinbacher, D, Kloten (Switzerland).
6. Arizona, Dmitriy Simashev, D, Yaroslavl Jr. (Russia).
7. Philadelphia, Matvei Michkov, RW, St. Petersburg (KHL).
8. Washington, Ryan Leonard, RW, USA U-18 (NTDP).
9. Detroit, Nate Danielson, C, Brandon (WHL).
10. St. Louis, Dalibor Dvorsky, C, AIK (Sweden).
11. Vancouver, Tom Willander, D, Rogle Jr. (Sweden).
12. Arizona (from Ottawa), Daniil But, LW, Yaroslavl Jr. (Russia).
13. Buffalo, Zach Benson, LW, Winnipeg (WHL).
14. Pittsburgh, Brayden Yager, C, Moose Jaw (WHL).
15. Nashville, Matthew Wood, RW, UConn (NCAA)
16. Calgary, Samuel Honzek, LW, Vancouver (WHL).
17. Detroit (from New York via Vancouver), Axel Sandin Pellikka, D, Skelleftea Jr.
18. Winnipeg, Colby Barlow, LW, Owen Sound (OHL).
19. Chicago (from Tampa Bay), Oliver Moore, C, USA U-18 (NTDP).
20. Seattle, Eduard Sale, LW, Brno (Czech Republic).
21. Minnesota, Charlie Stramel, C, Wisconsin (NCAA).
22. Philadelphia (from Los Angeles via Columbus), Oliver Bonk, D, London (OHL).
23. New York Rangers, Gabriel Perreault, RW, USA U-18 (NTDP).
24. Nashville (from Edmonton), Tanner Molendyk, D, Saskatoon (WHL).
25. St. Louis (from Toronto), Otto Stenberg, C, Frolunda Jr. (Sweden)
26. San Jose (from New Jersey), Quinton Musty, LW, Sudbury (OHL).
27. Colorado, Calum Ritchie, C, Oshawa (OHL).
28. Toronto (from Boston via Washington), Easton Cowan, RW, London (OHL).
29. St. Louis (from Dallas via New York Rangers), Theo Lindstein, D, Brynas
30. Carolina, Bradly Nadeau, LW, Penticton (BCHL).
31. Colorado (from Montreal), Mikhail Gulyayev, D, Omsk Jr. (Russia)
32. Vegas, David Edstrom, C, Frolunda Jr. (Sweden).
The Canadian Press