Connor Bedard, pictured above, is the first 15-year-old granted exceptional status to play in the Western Hockey League.
The NHL draft, which occurs annually in late June or early July, is a hot topic in the hockey world. The draft includes seven rounds with 32 prospects in each. For the first sixteen picks, a lottery is drawn by the teams that did not make the playoffs. The odds of this lottery are based on standings. The worst team in the league has an 18.5% chance of a first round pick, while the second worst has a 13.5% chance and so on.
This year, with projected number one pick Connor Bedard, it is even more interesting. Prospects are evaluated at a range of events over the years, but the most important is the U20 World Junior Championship, which takes place in early January. The tournament is a great showcase for prospects to display their skills against the top players of their age group, while representing their country in a beloved battle. An example is Slovakia's Juraj Slafkovsky, who after a dominant WJC performance in 2022, was the first overall pick. But how do strong performances carry over to the NHL?
Usually, players that dominate at age 16 have strong NHL careers. Since 2000, the leaders have been Connor Bedard, Sidney Crosby, Michael Froklik, Aleksander Barkov, and Connor McDavid. With the exception of Bedard who has yet to be drafted, all of these players became impressive captains, all-stars, and players. This includes McDavid who is regarded as the best player in the world at this moment, and Gretzky, who is widely accepted as the greatest player ever, holding countless NHL records such as the most goals and points of all time. Players that begin their WJC career at 16 generally translate well into the NHL.
What about all the players who don’t fall into this specific category? One way to see how top performers compare is through points per game (PPG). In single tournament records, Peter Forsberg, who was 19, was first with an average of 4.429 points per game. Forsberg went on to have an extremely successful career in the NHL, winning two Stanley Cups and being inducted into the hall of fame. Second is Raimo Helminen who at age 19 totaled 3.429 PPG. Helminen’s NHL career was a bit rockier, with a good rookie season (40 points in 66 games), only to be traded and end up in the minors the following season. Back problems also lead to his transfer to the Swedish league. The third person is Markus Näslund with 3.429 PPG who also had a successful NHL career. Other players with a high PPG include Wayne Gretzky and Esa Tikkanen. As shown above, players who achieve this level of average points per game tend to do well at the next level. However, dominating at a junior's level does not always directly translate to the NHL immediately. Players sometimes need more time to develop, especially in the current era. Players like Juraj Slafkovsky or Shane Wright proved their value after their rookie season. Jack Hughes and Rasmus Dahlin have also shown that it takes time to develop into the high level play of the NHL.
Another way to evaluate prospects is through their careers in leagues like the Canadian Hockey League (CHL). The CHL is made up of three leagues: the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), and the Western Hockey League (WHL), which in the end compete for the Memorial Cup. Great players tend to do quite well in the CHL, but great players in the CHL do not always translate to the NHL.
While some players make it to the NHL, many do not. Out of the top scorers in the CHL from 2009-2018, few have been consistently in the NHL. For example, Connor Brown, who captained the Erie Otters alongside McDavid and Dylan Strome played for 15 seasons. The rest have mostly had successful AHL or minor league hockey careers, but have not consistently played at the NHL level. So what does this mean? This means that the CHL and minor league level hockey may showcase talent, but there is no telling sign of what will carry over to the NHL. This is even more apparent than in the World Juniors because the competition is not as fierce.
But how do today's prospects line up? Obviously, the projected number one pick Connor Bedard is high in the rankings. People have called him the most exciting prospect since McDavid and Crosby. The best tournament for Crosby was 9 points in six games. The best tournament for McDavid was 11 points in 7 games. Bedard scored 23 points in seven games which blows the others out of the water. He will certainly be someone to watch out for.
In the CHL, Crosby has the best stats with 303 points in 121 games. McDavid had 285 points in 166 games, and Bedard currently has 219 points in 115 games. The PPG average is 2.5 for Crosby, 1.72 for McDavid, and 1.9 for Bedard. It is important to keep in mind that both McDavid and Crosby were on good teams with other great players while Bedard is mostly left on his own. When playing for Canada in the World Juniors, Bedard also showcased his ability to make the people around him better, contributing to 65% of Canada’s goals.
So overall watching prospects is a great way to scout out future talent and the possible future of your favorite team, but there are no exact answers or telling signs. Players are not in their prime at 18 years old and will need time to develop. However, players to be on the lookout for in the recent or upcoming draft include Connor Bedard, Luke Hughes, Adam Fantilli, Logan Cooley, Leo Carlsson, and Simon Nemec.