Bedard's vision and 'silent confidence' keeps him a step ahead at World Juniors
Team Canada held a meeting at the Scotiabank Centre on Sunday. Team Slovakia travelled from Moncton to Halifax and did not hold a practice.
Connor Bedard has all the tools to be a superstar. He also has the vision to maximize those weapons.
"The way he sees the game unfold, it's almost like everyone is moving a step slower than him," said captain Shane Wright. "He just reads the game so well. He just understands the situation and what's going on around him."
"It's incredible, honestly," said linemate Joshua Roy. "I don't have any words to describe that. He's just so good with the puck and doing things that nobody is expecting."
"I was joking around with him," said fourth-line centre Caedan Bankier. "I was saying, 'Maybe I need a fishbowl to see some of the stuff he's seeing out there.' He's seeing plays that most guys just don't see and that's the most special quality he has."
IIHF rules dictate that Bedard must wear additional facial protection, because he's still just 17. But age is just a number to Bedard, who was the first player to receive exceptional status in the Western Hockey League, which allowed him to suit up at 15.
"There's no exceptional status for the NHL but if there was he'd be the No. 1 candidate," said defenceman Brandt Clarke, who played nine games with the Los Angeles Kings this season.
The opposition is doing whatever they can to take away Bedard's howitzer of a shot so he's turned into more a playmaker of late. He has produced four assists in each of the last three games.
"Some of the plays, he's looking one way and he's passing the other way," marvelled head coach Dennis Williams. "His ability to see the ice and see where his teammates are and knowing when to shoot it and when to dish it is top notch ... Even that little play to [Kevin] Korchinski last night. It looks like just a simple sauce play over a stick, but that take a lot of ability and courage to get it up and down and lay it flat."
How'd Bedard develop his hockey IQ?
"When I was younger most of my training was just going on free ice and fooling around and playing 2-on-2 with some buddies," the North Vancouver native said. "I think that helps."
Bedard also watches a lot of hockey. He studies Auston Matthews, because of how the Toronto Maple Leafs centre shoots. When it comes to passing, he likes to zero in on Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov.
"He's one of the passers in the NHL with how he fakes his shot and finds a guy," the Regina Pats phenom notes.
After Canada lost on Boxing Day, Bedard reviewed all his shifts and made adjustments.
"There were a few where I kind of swung away from the play," he told TSN's James Duthie during a walk along the water in Halifax. "In the D-zone I came back and swung to the boards maybe thinking we had the puck or whatnot, but something to correct. We want to stop there and be in better position. That's something I tried to fix for the next few."
After scoring a goal in that opening loss to Czechia, Bedard took his game to another level piling up five goals and 12 assists in three games.
Bedard is now up to 31 points in his World Junior career, which is level with Eric Lindros for most all-time by a Canadian player. The Hockey Hall of Famer took to Twitter on Sunday to encourage Bedard.
"Don't just break the record," Lindros wrote. "Smash it! Win the tournament."
Bedard wasn't aware of the social-media message until informed by a reporter.
"It's pretty cool he even knows who I am," Bedard said with a big smile. "That's awesome to hear that and him wanting me to beat it is cool. We'll see here. A few more games so hopefully I can."
Bedard appears laser focused at the moment.
"I call it silent confidence," said Williams, "because you don't even know about it. He goes about every day the same. Talking to him this morning, he's the same Connor Bedard he was five days ago."
Bedard is often workmanlike on the ice despite his wizardry.
"He's not a guy you see a lot of excitement out of probably," said Williams. "You don't see a lot of smiling when he scores or if you ever see him on the Jumbotron or anything. He's a very intense, focused player."
There are some exceptions.
"You saw on that first goal the excitement in him," William said. "When Roy scored that you saw how much he cares about the winning side and his teammates."
"I was pretty fired up," Bedard said. "I think we all were. I don't want to say you don't expect it, but to get one that quick was awesome. That was probably the most excited I've gotten this tourney. We knew how big of a game it was. That first one is always big."
Bedard's least productive game since Canada opened camp came against Slovakia. He managed just one secondary assist on the power play during a pre-tournament game on Dec. 21 in Moncton.
"We'll look at it a bit," Bedard said of Canada's 6-1 win. "It does feel like a while ago even though it was two weeks or something."
Bedard took four minor penalties in that game, including two for roughing.
"I can see that his mindset wasn't really good," said Moose Jaw Warriors forward Robert Baco, who plays against Bedard in the WHL. "He's a really skilled guy. He's got good stick handling and nice hockey sense. I need to play physical against him. That's the only thing that can stop him."
"Probably we play man-on-man on him because he's very dangerous," said Montreal Canadiens prospect Filip Mesar. "We have to play [with] a body on him."
Bedard also took a costly cross-checking penalty in Canada's final pre-tournament game against Finland, but has not been in the box through four games at the World Juniors.
Bedard should see a lot of defenceman Simon Nemec, who is averaging 26 minutes and 33 seconds of ice time per game to lead the event.
"We need to skate with him," Nemec said. "We need to be closer to him. He's a good player and strong too, but a physical game is not good for him."
Nemec made an impression on Bedard during the pre-tournament game.
"He was giving it to me a lot," Bedard said. "He's physical and obviously a really skilled player. He's the second overall pick for a reason. We're excited to go against a guy like that."
Playing physical is a big part of Canada's identity, but at times players have crossed the line. On Saturday, Zack Ostapchuk received a match penalty for a knee-on-knee hit on Filip Bystedt.
"It was unlucky," Ostapchuk said. "The guy stops on a dime. I know I can't stick my knee out like that. It's just unfortunate. It's the way she goes."
Canada surrendered one goal on the ensuing five-minute penalty.
"I got to be a little more careful than what I showed there," the Ottawa Senators prospect said. "It's not going to change how I play, but I have to be a little more careful."
Zach Dean was also assessed a major penalty in the preliminary round.
Canada leads the tournament in penalty minutes and is third overall in minors.
"It's something that's creeped into our game a little bit," said Wright. "A lot of these penalties are 200 feet away from our own net. Definitely looking for a little more discipline out of the guys. We always want to play hard. We still want to be physical and finishing our hits."
Williams was asked what his message is to the team with the knockout stage starting.
"The message is discipline's going to be crucial for our group," the coach said.
"We've taken a lot of stick infractions," said Wright. "So maybe try moving your feet more instead of reaching and hooking."
Slovakia is second in power-play percentage (44.4 per cent) behind only Canada.
The ejection slowed Ostapchuk's momentum. He just earned a promotion to Canada's checking line alongside Nathan Gaucher and Dean.
"Refocused and ready to go tomorrow," the Vancouver Giants captain promised. "I've been moving my feet. I really like how I've been tracking and reloading and stuff like that. I'm playing the game the way I know how to play it. I'm just playing simple, banging bodies and making simple plays."
Kelowna Rockets forward Colton Dach sustained an upper-body injury while delivering a hit late in Saturday's game. He's out for the rest of the tournament.
"You feel so bad for him and his family coming out to watch," said Wright. "It gives us a little more motivation. We want to go out and win the gold medal for him now and prove to him that his efforts were worth it."
Mississauga Steelheads centre Owen Beck, who was cut at selection camp, has been added to the roster.
"We just thought his game filled that void of what Dach was playing for us," Williams said. "A reliable, multi-use player, who can play centre or wing. We thought he had a really good camp."
Beck played a Saturday afternoon game in the Ontario Hockey League and was watching Canada's game against Sweden when Dach got injured.
"I knew there was a chance after Dach went down," the Montreal Canadiens prospect said. "I was surprised when my phone rang and it's Hockey Canada on the other end and I was coming to Halifax the very next morning. I was ecstatic and thrilled."
The first call Beck received was actually from Steelheads coach James Richmond, who told him to head to the arena and get his equipment. Hockey Canada management group lead James Boyd called a few minutes later to explain the situation and extend an invitation.
"A little sleep deprived, but caught up on that on the plane," Beck said. "It was a whirlwind."
Beck took an 8:55 am flight from Toronto to Halifax on Sunday. He arrived at the Scotiabank Centre just as a team meeting was starting and received a chorus of cheers from his new teammates.
"He does everything right," noted Wright, who played Beck in the OHL. "He's a 200-foot guy, who you can put in a lot of different situations. He's one of the best face-off guys in the OHL."
Beck was disappointed to get cut in camp, but took solace in the fact that, at age 18, he would get another chance next year. Now, fate has moved up the timeline.
"This team is going to be the hardest one I probably ever have to make in my life with all the skilled players on it," he said.
Beck has six assists and one goal in seven games since being cut.
Williams joked that Beck is being thrown "right in the deep end" without a practice or game-day skate planned prior to his World Junior debut.
"Stepping into a quarterfinal game, I'll have to elevate my game quite a bit and be ready to be on pace with everyone else," Beck acknowledged. "I'm feeling pretty good about my game and looking forward to putting it to the test tomorrow."
Beck does have some World Junior experience as a fan. He was in Buffalo when Canada beat Sweden to win it all in 2018.
"It wasn't in Canada, but it felt like a home game with all the Canadians crossing the border," Beck recalled. "Getting to see them win that gold medal was special."
Tyler Steenbergen, who started that game as Canada's 13th forward, scored the game-winning goal. Can Beck envision himself making a similar impact?
"Absolutely," he said. "This team is filled with talented players and any one of us could make the difference."
Beck will start Monday's game as the 13th forward. Edmonton Oilers prospect Reid Schaefer will move into Dach's spot on the fourth line.
What did Thomas Milic think about New Year's Eve at the World Juniors?
"It was everything I dreamed of and more," the Seattle Thunderbirds goalie said. "The crowd was great right from warm-ups. There were so many kids with signs on the glass. Such a great atmosphere to be in. They helped us out a lot with all the energy they produced."
Milic stopped 22 of 23 shots to earn a win in front of his parents and other family members.
"That was pretty special for me," the 19-year-old said. "It was great having them behind me and the rest of Canada watching as well. I feel like we're all one big family."
"He was our MVP," Bedard said. "He was unbelievable, but we expect that from him. We know how good he is. He was unreal. That brings us momentum."
Milic's best save came in the second period when Sweden had a 3-on-1 rush and he slid over to deny Vancouver Canucks prospect Jonathan Lekkerimaki.
"I remember seeing the puck go across, but being a little late," he said. "Sometimes those desperation saves have to be made. In these games when there are lower [total] shots but some higher-quality shots, as a goalie that’s something I have to be able to do is pull out a save like that every once in a while. A little bit of a flashy save. It was fun."
Dylan Guenther wasn't surprised.
"You can tell he's a really good athlete," the Arizona Coyotes winger said. "Like, when we're playing sewer ball or ping pong and stuff like that, he's really good at a lot of things."
Milic will get another start on Monday.
"Last night solidified his game and built his confidence," said Williams.
Projected Canada lineup for Monday's quarterfinal:
Roy - Stankoven - Bedard
Othmann - Wright - Guenther
Dean - Gaucher - Ostapchuk
Schaefer - Bankier - Fantilli
Del Mastro - Zellweger
Allan - Clarke
Hinds - Korchinski