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30 Sep 2023


Connor Bedard rookie Chicago Blackhawks

Connor Bedard recorded two assists in his first NHL preseason game on Sept. 28, 2023, at the United ... [+] Center in Chicago. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

TNS

It has been awhile since a first-overall draft pick stepped straight into the NHL and won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

The last player to do it was Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the 2016-17 season. And even he was a bit of an exceptional case. Because he was born just two days after the league’s Sept. 15 age cutoff for each draft year, he was already 19 years old when he suited up for his first NHL game. And while waiting for his draft day to come along, he spent a year playing professional hockey against in men in Switzerland’s top league.

Connor Bedard does not have those same advantages.

Born on July 17, Bedard was still 17 when he was selected first overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in Nashville last June. He’s coming straight out of junior hockey, with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League. The last player to win the Calder under similar circumstances was Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers, in the 2014-15 season.

That being said, Bedard lived up to the sky-high expectations around him in his preseason debut with the Blackhawks on Thursday. Though he said “I think I can be a lot better,” after Chicago’s 2-1 overtime win against the St. Louis Blues, he may have been his own worst critic. The North Vancouver native was named the game’s second star after logging a team-high nine shot attempts and going 10-for-16 in the face-off circle while leading all Chicago forwards with 21:20 of ice time and recording primary assists on both Blackhawks goals.

He got his stick on the puck for a shot before Philipp Kurashev banged the rebound past Joel Hofer to open the scoring midway through the second period.

Then, at 4:02 of overtime, he feathered a pass through to Andreas Athanasiou for the game winner.

While Bedard has been charmingly humble about what this season will look like for him, speaking often of how he needs to earn a spot in the Blackhawks’ opening-night lineup before anything else can happen, he certainly appears to be up to the task at hand.

Based on Thursday’s performance, it appears that Bedard will remain the Calder favorite when the regular season begins on Oct. 10.

But he’ll have competition for those rookie of the year honors. While second-overall pick Leo Carlsson has been held off the scoresheet so far in two preseason games with the Anaheim Ducks, No. 3 selection Adam Fantilli also put up a pair of assists in his preseason debut with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sept. 24. Also a center and also a virtual lock to make the opening-night lineup, Fantilli is older that Bedard — he turns 19 on Oct. 12 — and bigger, at 6’2” compared to Bedard’s 5’10”. He’ll be a player to watch this season.

Other competition will come from past draft classes — older players who are making the transition to becoming full-time NHLers this season. Don’t sleep on Logan Cooley, the 19-year-old who was selected third overall by the Arizona Coyotes in 2022. He displayed his tremendous skillset with a highlight-reel goal in Melbourne during his team’s trip to Australia last week.

Some other Calder candidates got limited opportunities to show what they could do in brief NHL auditions last season.

That list includes 20-year-old Luke Hughes, the youngest brother of Jack and Quinn Hughes, who didn’t look out of place in two regular-season and three playoff games last spring after finishing his sophomore season at the University of Michigan. Two other defensemen who were top-10 picks from Hughes’ 2021 draft, Simon Edvinsson of the Detroit Red Wings and Brandt Clarke of the Los Angeles Kings, are also worth keeping taps on as they enter their first full NHL seasons.

So is right winger Matt Coronato, selected 13th in 2021 by the Calgary Flames. Through Friday’s games, his four points tie him for the rookie preseason scoring lead with Matthew Knies of the Toronto Maple Leafs (selected 57th in 2021), Mackie Samoskevich of the Florida Panthers (selected 24th in 2021), Logan Stankoven of the Dallas Stars (selected 47th in 2021) and Coronato’s former teammate at Harvard, defenseman Henry Thrun of the San Jose Sharks (selected 101st in 2019 by the Anaheim Ducks, then traded to San Jose for a third-round pick when it became clear that he had no plans to sign in Anaheim).

Also, don’t sleep on Luke Evangelista, selected 42nd by the Nashville Predators in 2020. The 21-year-old skated in 24 NHL games last season, one shy of the cutoff to retain his rookie status this year, and proved to be a reliable scored with seven goals and 15 points.

Devon Levi Buffalo Sabres

Devon Levi #27 of the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images)

NHLI via Getty Images

Finally — while it’s extremely rare for goalies to earn serious Calder consideration, Devon Levi could prove to be the exception to the rule in Buffalo this season. Physically, the 21-year-old defies modern goalie stereotypes, checking in at 6’0” and 184 pounds. But after two stellar seasons at Northeastern University, where he won back-to-back Mike Richter Awards as the NCAA’s goaltender of the year, Levi looked impressive in a seven-game audition with the Sabres at the end of last season, where he went 5-2-0 with a 2.94 goals-against average and helped keep Buffalo’s faint playoff hopes alive until late in the season.

Levi is expected to play the full game when the Sabres take on the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday. In 40 minutes of action so far in preseason, he has not allowed a goal.

Only three goalies have been Calder winners in this millennium: Steve Mason (2009), Andrew Raycroft (2004) and Evgeni Nabokov (2001).