Before he took Alexandre Daigle first overall in the 1993 NHL draft, then-Senators general manager Randy Sexton was asked what it would take to pry the pick away from him.
“Maybe if you offered Patrick Roy, Mario Lemieux and Eric Lindros,” Sexton was quoted as saying in a joking/not-joking kind of way.
Daigle spent 10 years spinning his wheels in the NHL. Two of the three guys picked right after him, Chris Pronger and Paul Kariya, made the Hall of Fame.
One assumes Chicago GM Kyle Davidson has learned that lesson. On Monday night, Chicago won the lottery with the third-best odds. It will absolutely, without a scintilla of doubt, take Connor Bedard first overall.
“In the end, it’s one piece,” Davidson, looking more than a little flustered, said afterward. “It’s a big piece. But it’s one piece.”
Chicago will take Bedard not because it’s the best choice, but because to do otherwise would be going against the consensus wisdom of the entire league. You don’t get fired for making the wrong pick. You get fired for making a different pick that turns out wrong.
Everyone has already decided that Bedard is a generational player. Maybe he is. He certainly looks like he’s operating on a different level whenever we’ve seen him. Except we’ve watched him playing against kids. Now he’ll have to do it against men.
‘Doing it’ is only one of Bedard’s challenges. He’ll also have to go out there and speak on behalf of guys who are old enough to be his father. He’ll have to talk in every city he visits. No days off for hockey Jesus.
He’ll have to negotiate relationships inside a team that already has its hierarchies. He’ll have to make sure he isn’t making anyone look stupid for taking him. He may have to figure out which coaches resent and/or fear him. He’ll have to decide how rapacious he wants to be in his non-hockey business. Is he a BetMGM man or more of an ads for the local car dealership sort of guy?
Were he a normal kid, he’d be picking a college right now. Instead, he will spend the next few years fronting a multi-billion-dollar Original Six entertainment corporation that is objectively terrible, but still thinks it is great.
Best of luck with that.
Because he’s No. 1, being good isn’t enough. Bedard must be great. He must be at least as great as the four or five guys picked right after him. It’s okay if some hidden giant emerges in Round 3, because that means everyone was wrong and no one will ever want to talk about it.
But if someone in the top five is better, some knob will pop up somewhere and say, ‘I told you so.’ That is how they begin to nudge you into bust territory.
It’s a deeply unfair expectation, and crucial to hockey’s media ecosystem.
Everyone knows No. 1s don’t usually work out. Certainly not by the standard we raise them up to beforehand – professional sainthood.
Even the terminology is unfair – “lottery.” Everyone knows you win a lottery, though in this case you don’t actually win anything. You win a chance at winning. Maybe what happened on Monday night might more aptly be called topping the draft long list, with the short list to come in four or five years.
For Bedard, the most pressing issue is his Chicago problem.
Only a few clubs celebrate that moment in the mid-aughties when first overall really was a golden ticket. Between 2003 and 2008, five of the six guys picked first went on to Hall of Fame-calibre careers on Stanley Cup winners.
It could be argued that those five – Marc-André Fleury, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos – define the league in the 21st century.
Anaheim had top odds to secure the first pick. Had that happened, Bedard doesn’t have to be Paul Kariya. But in Chicago, he absolutely must be Kane.
Of the 14 players taken first since that bumper crop, only one has won a Cup – Nathan MacKinnon.
There are a lot of good players in that second group, and a few great ones. But the promise of first overall isn’t that you’re getting a guy who will make the all-star team. It’s that he will single-handedly turn a loser into a champion. Lately, that hasn’t been happening.
All to say, this is a lot to put on a teenager who hasn’t proved anything. Asking Bedard, or anyone else, to move seamlessly from juniors to the pros is like taking an experiment that’s been perfected in a lab and then performing it live on stage in Vegas three times a week.
A lot of X factors. Might take a while to work out the kinks. And there is a little rope, but not much.
A No. 1 pick has as much time to fulfill his potential as it takes for the next big thing to come along. Remember how people thought Alexis Lafrenière was going to set the league alight? That was a long time ago. Three whole years.
This process is ruthless, cruel and necessary. Few things fascinate people more than new technology. In a perfect world, that tech works. But if it doesn’t, that also gets you clicks. The NHL and every other league need to constantly renew their stock of storylines. Every time a Bedard is sucked into the machine, someone else is spit out the other end.
Remember ‘12 first overall pick Nail Yakupov? Fun guy, for a Russian. Everyone loved his raw potential. They loved it right up until ‘15 first overall pick Connor McDavid arrived. Then they were tired of it.
If you believe the hype, Bedard is in McDavid’s class. He could be the best player in the world.
But the more superlatives that get hung on him, the greater the likelihood that Bedard’s going to disappoint someone’s expectations.
That’s the part of this lottery equation no one mentions on the annual broadcast: ‘Tonight, someone will win. And at the same, someone else loses.’