This is the first in a new series of articles I'm calling 'Bedard-on-one'. At this point if you're reading this article, you know all about Connor Bedard. He's a generational ice hockey talent playing in a junior league, mere months before he steps directly into a professional league (with almost near certainty). This is a rarity in today's NHL. As draft picks are becoming less likely to step directly into the NHL and be impact players, this sort of progression from junior league directly to pro league gives us an opportunity. The opportunity here is to analyze how the junior league defensemen in Bedard's league, the Western Hockey League (WHL), match up in isolation defensively against him.
Why is this important? Well the answer is simple: all scouts are constantly projecting one, two or even three levels above what the player they're scouting is playing in. Essentially scouting is a well-educated guess of how a player will react against pro-level competition at some point in the future. With this series, we don't have to guess. We can say with almost near certainty that Bedard is a professional player playing in a junior league. Not only is a he a professional player, he's a player whose skill level these defensemen probably won't encounter again during their time in juniors. We can analyze the current way draft-eligible defenders play against a professional player, and possibly make some educated guesses of that translatability to higher levels. In our first two cases we're covering Lukas Dragicevic and Tanner Molendyk. Today is Dragicevic, and Molendyk will follow soon after. We'll talk about why these two in a bit.
Alright that's the preamble, but what're the rules? There's got to be a catch right? Of course. Here are the disclaimers:
I'm looking for what each defenseman does to neutralize, contain or otherwise stop Connor Bedard (as much as that is possible). I'm in no way interested in the play after where the defenseman is facing another player, or 10 minutes later when Bedard is on the bench. These are isolated plays on the rush, in the zone, on the penalty kill, etc. with Connor Bedard as a main focus of the play.
With very few exceptions, I'm only looking at the defensive side of the puck for these defensemen. I'm not interested in how they're able to carry the puck against Connor Bedard, only the opposite. This is for the simple reason that while Bedard is a gifted offensive player, and has more than enough talent and smarts to make a defensive impact one day, he's not quite there yet. He's only on another level, a professional level, offensively at this time.
We'll be talking about the style of play for each defenseman, and why that can or cannot work against professional competition, HOWEVER all defensemen and prospects change. Coaching, development and direction are vital to a prospect's development, and this effect cannot be understated.
Finally, there is some suspension of disbelief here. While many scouts and myself included believe Bedard will step right into the NHL next year and be impactful, there's a chance he won't. We're ignoring that chance, however big or small it may be in reality. In this reality, Bedard is an impact NHLer playing against junior league players.
You're going to see a lot of highlight Bedard plays. That's just him. He's special, regardless of the defenseman he's lined up against right now.
Alright that's it. So why these two first? Why Lukas Dragicevic and Tanner Molendyk? One, because they're draft eligible, and I think that makes this breakdown interesting for their projection at the NHL draft.
More importantly however, Molendyk and Dragicevic play such a different brand of defense that using Bedard as their opponent brings out the stark contrast in their styles. Let's start with Lukas Dragicevic this time.
Dragicevic is a gifted offensive defenseman. After a well-publicized and historic 27-game point streak in the WHL, he sits currently with 55 points in 43 games. For a draft-eligible, right-handed, 6'2" defenseman (can you hear the heavy-breathing of NHL GMs already?), that production should land him squarely in top 10 discussion, especially in a forward-heavy draft.
So...why...isn't he? He's ranked #27 by Bob McKenzie's rankings, the #12 NA skater by CSS, and #25 by Craig Button. Even for amateur scouting services like FCHockey, eliteprospects.com, and recruitscouting.com he's ranked #52, #42, and #36 respectively. What gives?
While one bone of contention for scouts is just how good of a skater Dragicevic is, the bigger question comes from the defensive side of his game.
For my money, Dragicevic is one of the least aggressive defenders in the top end of this class. Dragicevic defers to positioning, waiting and attempting to get into passing lanes or get in the way of shots rather than attempting to take control of his defensive game. He's extremely passive.
The above chart, generated by Mitch Brown at his Patreon, highlights what I'm talking about. While he has basically average entry prevention numbers, his defensive plays (break-ups, interceptions, dump-in recoveries, pressuring shots) is extremely low relative to his peers. He also just doesn't exit his own zone with the puck all that often, likely a result of his passivity in getting the puck off defenders.
Let's start on the rush:
Dragicevic is #2 in white for all these gifs, Bedard is #98 in red. In the above play you can see a few things good and bad for Dragicevic. One, he is able to angle Bedard away from the center of the ice. Good. Two, Bedard easily handles under both his and his partner's sticks and creates space, space enough for a cross-ice beauty of a pass. Bad. Three, there is almost no attempt to stop Bedard from exiting his own zone and entering the neutral zone, and eventually the offensive zone. He tracks well and makes sure he doesn't get beat outright, but ultimately nothing is done to stop the play from developing.
Dragicevic is at the top of the screen, playing right-defense. He makes very little effort to pressure Bedard, or to even pick up the two trailers to Bedard's left. He mirrors his defense partner's kneel-down to try to breakup the play instead. It also begins the theme of Dragicevic's defense: kneel-down, wait, pray.
Kneel-down, wait, pray worked this time! Kind of. Again Dragicevic does very little to prevent a zone entry here from Bedard. He also fails to tie up his man crashing the net or cover him. He does manage to block a direct shot into his shins. For some reason that's what the trailer decided to do here. It's a good example of technically a good blocked shot/defensive play, but how we got here was just poor defending all around.
Rush #4/Recovery #1:
He does little to get in the way of Bedard's shot here other than start to attempt a kneel-down. His stick isn't lunging towards Bedard, there's very little doubt in Bedard's mind that he can get a shot off here, even across his body. Once the shot goes wide, his recovery is very poor, showing off some very passive footwork and slow acceleration back to the net after. It also leads us quite nicely into the next few recovery gifs (what happens after the rush breaks down) as well.
Dragicevic at the top of the gif near the half-wall gets beat, and his slow acceleration gets him in trouble again. He can't get close enough to Bedard to get in his passing lane, or challenge him physically. He again attempts to lunge to get into his way, but without success.
Dragicevic has some smart positioning here to kneel and angle at the same time to take away more space. However his recovery and recognition of the puck afterwards leaves much to be desired again. He seems to lack the urgency necessary to find and clear pucks when they're lose, as seen above. Bedard picks the puck up between his legs, and sets up a grade A chance before Drag can even turn his hips. That's a problem.
The Final Gifs:
He takes the pass away. That's for sure. Bedard does rip one off the post right after, but man does he take that pass away. Look, all of this isn't fair. Bedard is ridiculous, I get that. But I just want a little more from Dragicevic on every single play defensively. The lack of urgency, physicality or speed defensively is tiresome when a player as skilled as Bedard can dance around him so easily.
Finally...look man. Bedard has some physicality, but this is a bad look when someone so slight of build is able to just bulldoze you like that. While this play in and of itself is just an unfortunate series of events for Dragicevic, it really highlights just how passive and unphysical he can be at times.
All of this is to say that while I really do love Dragicevic's intelligent playmaking and activation, he lacks a few things necessary right now to combat a player as skilled as Bedard on the defensive side of the puck. He lacks urgency or the stickwork to challenge Bedard as he enters the zone. He lacks the physicality and acceleration necessary to pin him against the wall with any frequency. He lacks the defensive presence of mind to locate and attack loose pucks before Bedard can pounce on them.
Not that any of the above can't improve mind you, just that right now I think this is why NHL teams are giving some pause to this defender. His passivity defensively might cause him to be a late-first or early-second rather than a top 10 pick, and these traits are evident when you watch him against an NHL-ready player in Connor Bedard.
So why did I pick Tanner Molendyk for next time? Well, take everything you saw about Dragicevic, and do mostly the opposite (sometimes to a detriment), and that's Molendyk defensively and in transition. But that break down is for another day. Thanks for reading!