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Blackhawks' Connor Bedard didn't just meet expectations in his rookie NHL season — he exceeded them

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Connor Bedard has been hyped up as hockey's next up-and-coming superstar for years. He had such incredibly high expectations going into his rookie NHL season with the Chicago Blackhawks that it felt unfair for an 18-year-old kid.

And yet, Bedard didn't just meet those expectations. He exceeded them.

"It was incredible," Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson said. "The weight that was put on his shoulders, given his profile walking into the league, it's really difficult to handle. I don't think anyone can adequately quantify the degree of difficulty of what he had to deal with off the ice, to then go and perform on the ice. We work with him to make it as seamless as possible. And, for the most part, I think we accomplished that.

"But having said that, he's an 18-year-old player that had to go through more media attention than any player in recent memory, and probably more than any player entering the league ever, just given the social media age and the age that we're in right now. And so I thought it was extremely impressive."

I think back to the opening five-game road trip. The Blackhawks started the season on national television in Pittsburgh, where all the attention was on Bedard vs. his childhood idol Sidney Crosby. They played on TNT the next night in Boston, where Bedard scored his first career NHL goal, before making a trip to Montreal for Hockey Night in Canada.

Taylor Hall stood up for his linemate the next day after a practice in Toronto when asked about the media circus surrounding Bedard and all the off-ice obligations he's had to do to that point.

"I think he's handling it really well," Hall said. "He does way too many in-game interviews and stuff. I think they need to find a way to just let him play, but he understands his role as a major ambassador for the game of hockey and he's handling it so well. He doesn't seem to be fazed by it but I think it can be a little much for him at times. He doesn't say that, but it feels like it is."

A few weeks later, Bedard respectfully and subtly acknowledged that occasionally it was wearing on him a little bit.

“It's been pretty wild," Bedard said on Oct. 22. "Ever since before camp-ish, it's been crazy. But it's not something I look at as a negative at all. I'm really grateful to be in the position I am and there's very few people that get that opportunity, get to be as lucky. I'm looking at it like that. I'm living out a dream and I feel very fortunate for that. But it is crazy and busy. I'm human too; I can get a little tired. But it's been good and I'm just enjoying it.”

When you factor in all of the off-ice responsibilities he had and all the attention he got on the ice as opponents game-planned solely around him, it made what he did on the ice even more impressive. 

Bedard led all rookies in goals (22), assists (39) and points (61) despite missing 14 games with a fractured jaw. And he did so as the 14th-youngest player in league history.

"He certainly, offensively, delivered everything that you would want out of a first year, 18 year old player and someone of his skill set," Davidson said. "I was really, really impressed. I don't think many other players could walk in and do that and do what he did. It was extremely impressive.

"And the injuries that we sustained didn't make anything any easier on him. It only increased the offensive burden that he had to carry and he had to shoulder. When your depth is depleted, it gives the opposition a more specific subset of players to focus on. And obviously, him being one of the top ones to focus on made his life even harder on the ice, and so to produce the way he did was outstanding."

Jason Dickinson concurred: "He was incredible. He's a world-class player. He's got all kinds of skill, he sees the ice incredibly well, and his future is bright. It's hard to believe he's only 18. I've got to remind myself that every day honestly when I see him that he is still a kid and there's a lot of growth for him and that his ceiling is quite high and that there are going to be some very memorable days here in Chicago all because of that kid."

It would have been easy for Bedard to feel burnt out by the time he got on the ice, and it would have been hard to blame him if he did. But being on the rink seemingly rejuvenates him. That's his primary way of recharging.

I honestly can't recall a time this season when he wasn't the last player off the ice for a practice or a morning skate. Multiple times, he had to be dragged off the ice because the Zamboni had to clean the sheet. And sometimes he would sneak back out there afterwards.

That work ethic from Bedard rubbed off on some of the players.

"He loves the game," Kevin Korchinski said. "I think for him, a lot of the stuff isn't really work. It's just him having fun and enjoying it and loving what it is to be a hockey player. Seeing what he puts into the game, it's awesome. It's infectious and it motivates you that heading into the summer, he's going to be working his ass off, so you want to do the same thing."

On Saturday in his exit interview, Bedard was disappointed with the win-loss total as he reflected back on the season. He wears the losses hard.

"It’s no secret that we had a frustrating year," Bedard said. "I'm not happy with it, really. I think if you're too happy about it, then maybe that's something you've got to look at."

From an individual standpoint, it's hard not to be encouraged by Bedard's performance. But he was already thinking about ways he can improve over the offseason and develop into an even better player next season.

"I thought I learned a lot," Bedard said. "I think coming into next year, that’s going to be a big help for me. A lot of it’s off-ice. I’ve never obviously been a part of an NHL season. Of course, I was hurt for a little bit, but still played a lot of games in not so many days, so you kind of learn what you need to do and what your routine needs to look like. I think to just know that coming in and have that experience for next year is going to be huge.

"On the ice, what I need to get better at, I think that’s something even going into the summer is great to kind of know and know what the league’s like and how you can succeed and what more I can do to succeed."

Last year, Bedard's summer was ridiculously hectic with preparations for the NHL Draft and all the duties that came with it, both in the lead-up and after he was taken No. 1 overall.

This year, Bedard is going to have a lengthy offseason to hone his craft away from the spotlight, and you just know he's going to take advantage of every minute. Good luck, rest of the NHL.

"He's always trying to be a better version of himself," Nick Foligno said. "It's impressive at a young age that he's got that already dialed in. I give him a ton of credit for the way he's handled this year and I look forward to him taking a big step next year too.

"That's what's exciting is, I still think there's a lot in Connor that is still raw and can be developed. That's a pretty scary thought, what he's been able to accomplish already at 18. The good news is he's the type of guy that doesn't get too caught up in anything. Now he's moving ahead and I'm excited to see a 19-year-old Connor Bedard."

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