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NHL tanking rankings: Who’s in prime position to secure Connor Bedard?

As the hockey world watches Connor Bedard light up the World Juniors like no other, the NHL’s worst teams may take their tank to the next level.

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NHL tanking rankings: Who's in prime position to secure Connor Bedard?
The Montreal Canadiens may end up with the best odds in the NHL Draft Lottery, as they also own the struggling Florida Panthers' first-round pick in 2023. (Getty Images)
The Montreal Canadiens may end up with the best odds in the NHL Draft Lottery, as they also own the struggling Florida Panthers’ first-round pick in 2023. (Getty Images)

Connor Bedard is currently dominating the World Juniors at a rate that we’ve never witnessed before. The 17-year-old has somehow exceeded the preposterous hype surrounding him and then some, shattering several scoring records with two games remaining at this year’s tournament. Bedard has completely separated himself from the top of the 2023 NHL Draft cohort and for some teams, he’s certainly worth bottoming out for.

Bedard is leading the World Juniors with eight goals and 21 points — Logan Cooley of the United States, who went third overall to the Arizona Coyotes last summer, ranks second with five goals and 11 points. He is the best prospect we’ve ever evaluated — yes, even better than the last great Connor to enter the draft.

Here’s our latest edition of the Tanking Rankings, a recap of how teams have positioned themselves to get the best odds of securing Bedard, or a hearty consolation prize in one of Adam Fantilli, Leo Carlsson or Matvei Michkov.

Johnny Gaudreau was the headline free-agent signing last summer, and though he’s lived up to his end of the bargain with 37 points in 35 games, this is a Blue Jackets team that is allergic to goal scoring. Gaudreau can’t carry the Blue Jackets by himself; the team is relying on 20-year-old Kent Johnson and 21-year-old Yegar Chinakhov to provide secondary offense. This may not be the worst idea in the long run, especially if the Blue Jackets eventually build a youth movement around Bedard, with Johnson and Chinakhov playing ancillary roles. But for the time being, it has been a disaster season for the Blue Jackets.

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Vladislav Gavrikov is the anchor of the team’s defense, with Zach Werenski ruled out for the remainder of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Columbus has proven incapable of suppressing shots or high-danger chances without Gavrikov out there. The 27-year-old may be on the move before the deadline and he’s the perfect rental for a contender: a hard-nosed blue liner in the middle of his prime, capable of logging 22 minutes or more per game, who is slated to become an unrestricted free agent.

Columbus was far too optimistic about its internal projections entering this year, and it’s manifesting itself in a race towards the bottom of the standings. Gavrikov could be on the move, and the Blue Jackets, who are already anemic offensively and getting sub-par goaltending to boot, could plummet.

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Anaheim varies from Columbus in that it knew this year would be a rebuilding season and prepared accordingly. Trevor Zegras is one of the NHL’s most electrifying talents and will continue to round out his all-around game, while rookie Mason McTavish is getting the extended minutes he earned, showing some of the promise displayed during the 2022 World Juniors.

You have to feel for John Gibson. He’s faced an extraordinary volume of shots since entering the league, and while he was once considered among the NHL’s most talented goaltenders, his play has fallen off a cliff, and now he’s actively detrimental towards winning. Gibson is allowing four goals per game, with a sub-.900 save percentage, and while it’s unfair to put the blame squarely on a goalie when the team expected some built-in growing pains, he is leading the tank.

John Klingberg is Anaheim’s best trade asset, but even then it’s a depressed asset at best. Klingberg is no longer one of the NHL’s premier offensive defenseman, but he can fit into a top-four role on a contending team. We’ll see if any team is willing to pay for his past reputation, while surely pairing him on a team with more attention to detail on the defensive side.

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Timo Meier is a one-man offense unto himself as one of the best shot-creators in the league, yet the Sharks seem doomed to waste another outstanding season from the 26-year-old winger. Meier would command a ransom of first-round picks on the open market and if the Sharks are serious about their pursuit of Bedard, they should go all in and let Meier get a shot at a Cup with a real contender.

Erik Karlsson leads the Sharks with 53 points and is a Norris Trophy contender. Karlsson seems to be content in San Jose, but if he wants out, he’d also command a ransom of first-round picks and other assets. Karlsson doesn’t fit the Sharks’ current timeline and if he’s being shopped, he’d easily be the best player currently available.

The last remnants of San Jose’s 2016 run to the Stanley Cup Final are still kicking around. It’s time to rip the bandage off. San Jose will have its choice of offers if Karlsson or Meier are made available, while Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture should be on the table as well. Anything goes for a Sharks team that hasn’t been able to merge two conflicting timelines together.

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Chicago has the worst record in the league. It will only get worse from here onwards. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Max Domi are all widely rumoured to be on the trade block, while the two franchise pillars have done nothing to squash the notion that this will be their final season with the Blackhawks. Kane is still one of the NHL’s best offensive players, although he has little interest in playing any defense, and he would command a bevy of first-round picks and top prospects — you could view him and Erik Karlsson in the same regard here.

Toews is no longer capable of producing consistent top-six offense, but he’s still a faceoff dynamo and his attention to detail in his own end always stands out. He would certainly benefit from playing with some more offensively gifted wingers and his leadership, attention to detail, clutch scoring would be attractive to several top Cup contenders.

With the worst record in the league, Chicago has a weighted 18.5 percent chance of securing the top pick. It’s not a sure thing; a steady reminder to all of the clubs listed. And yet, the Blackhawks seem like they’re going to do everything they can to get Bedard. This franchise badly needs new direction on and off the ice, and perhaps the 17-year-old phenom is a window into new beginnings.

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1. Montreal Canadiens

Chicago has the best odds, so why is Montreal in first? Montreal has two genuine shots at the first overall pick. It can secure the first overall pick this year by virtue of its own record — Montreal is still eligible for the top choice with the new rules implemented, as any team can only get the first overall pick twice over a five-year span. But these new rules only are applied as of 2022, so yes, the Canadiens can get Bedard, and then will be ineligible for the top pick over the next five years. One has to imagine that if Montreal secured Bedard, it would be nowhere near the top of the draft for the foreseeable future.

The second route: Montreal owns Florida’s first-round pick with no protections, as part of the return from the Ben Chiarot trade. Florida, coming off a Presidents’ Trophy winning campaign in 2022, have been the biggest disappointment in the NHL by far, sitting seventh in the Atlantic Division. This would be horrific for Florida, who made the correct move to make an all-in move last year, only to face strong regression to the mean.

Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Kirby Dach are untouchable. Every other player on the roster should be considered expendable. And look, we don’t want to stir up any conspiracy theories, but Bedard to the Canadiens, one of the league’s flagship franchises despite three decades of futility, is the stuff of Gary Bettman’s dreams. Montreal has two strong shots at securing the top pick, and would instantly become the NHL’s most exciting franchise.

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Get the tank ready and fire away.

Honourable (or rather, dishonourable) mentions: Vancouver Canucks, Arizona Coyotes, Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues

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