Blackhawks’ No. 1 pick not yet official, but Connor Bedard’s ‘special way’ has special sway

Hawks amateur scouting director Mike Doneghey analyzes Bedard’s elite skills, the rest of this year’s loaded draft class and his staff’s plans for next month in Nashville.

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Connor Bedard skating.

Expected top pick Connor Bedard’s shooting ability and hockey IQ are his most impressive skills among a wide array of elite ones.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP

While in Chicago on Tuesday morning for staff meetings to prepare for the NHL Draft, Blackhawks amateur scouting director Mike Doneghey left his hotel to get coffee while wearing a Hawks zip-up.

He could barely navigate the sidewalk without interruption. The Hawks’ victory in the draft lottery Monday had ignited the city.

“There had to be three or four people on the way there who asked, ‘Do you work for the Blackhawks?’ ” Doneghey said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, my God, what a night last night! How good is the player at the top? How does that change things?’ ”

Of course, the “player at the top” is no secret. It’s Canadian junior hockey phenom Connor Bedard. With the No. 1 pick, the Hawks are first in line for the 17-year-old forward.

But Bedard isn’t officially a Hawk yet — he can’t be until the draft begins June 28 in Nashville. Doneghey, general manager Kyle Davidson and the rest of the Hawks’ front office haven’t even decided yet whether Bedard will be their No. 1 pick, although there’s little doubt they’ll eventually choose him.

Doneghey is quick to point out that the other prospects in the top five this year — forwards Adam Fantilli, Matvei Michkov, Leo Carlsson and Will Smith — are all talented enough to be a No. 1 pick in a less-loaded class.

Nonetheless, the Hawks have been watching Bedard intently for years, long before landing this pick, and have loved everything they have seen.

Bedard first established himself on the NHL scouting radar during the under-18 world championships in Texas in spring 2021, when he (at age 15) and Michkov (at age 16) both participated as double-underage prospects.

“You’re watching these two kids at the time, and you’re like, ‘If they continue on this path, then they’re going to be special players,’ ” Doneghey said.

Early-blossoming kids don’t often continue on such accelerated paths. But Bedard did, putting up Connor McDavid-esque numbers with the Regina Pats of the WHL this past season. He totaled 163 points in 64 games; McDavid had 169 points in 67 games in 2014-15 in the OHL.

“With [Bedard] being a level-headed kid and just focused on his team, he was rated No. 1 from the beginning of the season, and he wasn’t going to give anybody the opportunity to take that ‘No. 1’ moniker away from him,” Doneghey said.

There are plenty of elite parts to Bedard’s game, but his so-called hockey IQ — his ability to read the game around him and inherently know the right decisions to make — stands out as his second-best skill.

His best skill — no explanation needed — is his shot.

“He doesn’t carry the puck a lot, especially in scoring areas,” Doneghey said. “He gets [the puck] and it’s on and off the stick — and it’s quick, it’s accurate and it’s heavy.

“Some guys will have a quick release, but maybe it’s not as accurate or heavy. Other guys will have a heavy shot, but it takes them a little bit of time to get it off. Connor has the ability to shoot under pressure, shoot in stride and shoot in the open. He has a lot of special shooting characteristics.”

The Hawks also like his down-to-earth personality, reflected in his play. He’s not selfish, instead moving the puck swiftly through the neutral zone and around the offensive zone — he finished with more assists than goals this past season. He’s known as a good teammate off the ice, too.

“These [kinds of] guys, they just have a special way of seeing the game,” Doneghey said. “They know when to use their speed. They know when to play give-and-go with teammates.”

The expectations for Bedard will be astronomical as he enters the NHL, adding to the adversity any 18-year-old rookie is bound to experience. But the Hawks believe he has the personality and work ethic to overcome it.

Rest of the round

Doneghey raves about Fantilli, Michkov, Carlsson and Smith, as well.

He loves Fantilli’s drive to win — so strong he had to learn how to rein it in this past season — and his beyond-his-years maturity.

He’s amazed by Michkov’s ability to score, be it on the rush, in traffic, around the net off a rebound or on the flank of a power play. He insists Michkov’s Russian pro contract (with three years left) won’t scare NHL teams as much as some experts have speculated.

He was impressed by Carlsson’s strength gains last summer, which propelled the Swede into the first tier of prospects. More recently, he believes Smith’s status also was bolstered by a fantastic showing at this year’s under-18 world championships.

Barring any surprises, including with the Hawks’ No. 1 pick, the Ducks, Blue Jackets, Sharks and Canadiens each will get an elite prospect, too.

The Hawks have good reason to closely follow what happens beyond No. 1 because they also own the Lightning’s No. 19 overall pick. How to use that selection was a major topic of conversation during last week’s meetings among the scouting staff.

“I don’t know who’s going to be there because I think the board is going to go a little bit wacky after eighth or ninth, depending on if people take defensemen,” Doneghey said. “Hopefully we get a guy that can skate really fast, has quick hands, has a high hockey IQ and is competitive.

“Maybe a guy falls. Maybe we take a chance on a guy that we like but we can’t get [in the second round, but who is] there at 19th.”

Defensemen are in short supply among the top prospects this year, which is why the Hawks — looking ahead — took both Kevin Korchinski and Sam Rinzel in the first round last year. Some teams’ desperation for back-end help, however, could lead to unexpected reaches that shuffle the draft order.

Staff reorganization

It has been barely a year since Davidson promoted Doneghey to head of the amateur scouting department, and the jury is still out on whether Doneghey and his 13-man team will improve upon the Hawks’ recent subpar draft success rate.

Doneghey followed through on one organizational change he promised this past season: having each scout focus on a specific region rather than frequently overlapping each other. That allowed scouts to attend more games in-person within their regions, giving the Hawks more thorough data on U.S.- and Canada-based prospects in particular.

“With [our scouts] focusing on their areas, we got a lot more information on a smaller group instead of having small information on a bigger group,” he said. “So it has been really helpful.”

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