Does Canadian ice hockey have another superstar on its hands?
Welcome to the seventh edition of Plot the Ball — a newsletter where I offer data-driven answers to interesting questions I have about the world of sport.
This month — after following the action in the rescheduled IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton — I’ve been thinking about Canada’s ice hockey talent pipelines, and wondering whether 17-year-old Connor Bedard will be the country’s next major sporting star.
Does Canadian ice hockey have another superstar on its hands?
When legendary basketball player Bill Russell passed away on the last day of July, the NBA moved quickly to retire the use of his ‘6’ jersey across the league.
Russell became just the third player in a major North American sports league to receive such an honour, following baseball’s Jackie Robinson (whose ’42’ is worn by every player in Major League Baseball on April 15 each year) and ice hockey’s Wayne Gretzky.
While the impact that the 6ft 10in Russell had on the early NBA was striking, there are few athletes in any professional sport that have case a shadow as long as Gretzky.
The Canadian centre holds a staggering number of National Hockey League records, and won the competition’s Most Valuable Player award in eight consecutive seasons between 1980 and 1987.
Fittingly, his ’99’ jersey is unable to be surpassed in the traditional two-digit numbering system used by each of the major North American sports leagues. (Although West Indian cricketer Chris Gayle might have something to say about that.)
Every number of years, however, another Canadian hockey phenom emerges who threatens to threaten the Great One’s standing.
Current top-tier NHL players Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid are among those to have been anointed the ‘Next One’. As impressive as their careers to date have been, however, neither is likely to have matched Gretzky’s list of accolades when all is said and done.
But the cycle of hype never stops — and, just as Crosby and McDavid tore through junior hockey respectively in the early 2000s and 2010s, another exceptional talent is currently making his way towards the NHL.
Connor Bedard, a sharp-shooting forward from North Vancouver who only recently turned 17, has just been involved in Canada’s successful campaign at the IIHF World Juniors — the sport’s most prestigious tournament for men’s under-20 players.
This edition of the competition was rescheduled from December 2021 after Covid-19 outbreaks hit multiple teams, but a number of games were played late last year before its abandonment.
During that brief period, Bedard had taken the ice for Canada’s U20 side as a mere 16-year-old — joining Gretzky, Crosby, McDavid and a handful of others as the select few to have been deemed that good that young.
Bedard was also granted ‘exceptional player status’ by Hockey Canada as a 15-year-old, allowing him to compete in one of the Canadian Hockey League’s elite domestic competitions for junior players significantly earlier than normal.
Despite the disruption of the pandemic, Bedard has now had parts of two seasons competing against older, more mature players in the Western Hockey League for the Regina Pats.
And, comparing his performance in his age-15 and age-16 seasons to other players in his position who have been granted the same privileges, his early career has been as impressive as almost anyone’s.
In 77 regular-season WHL games over the last two years, Bedard has notched 128 combined goals and assists at an average rate of 1.7 points per game.
This is higher even than McDavid’s rate of production (1.4 points per game) as an exceptional-status junior, and trails only Crosby (2.2) among such players this century.
(Also notable in comparison to McDavid — who has developed as more of a playmaker at centre — is his pure goalscoring ability.)
Nonetheless, looking at the career NHL performance of players in this cohort relative to Gretzky is rather sobering — and indicative of just how high any athlete must climb if they are to actually emulate him.
Adjusting regular-season totals to the now-standard season length of 82 games, Gretzky alone accounts for the nine highest individual points tallies (and 14 of the highest 15), hitting his peak in 1985-86 with an otherworldly 215 points in 80 games played. (This works out as a 220-point clip over 82 games.)
Only McDavid has even got close to some of Gretzky’s more typical performances, scoring at a 154-point pace in the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season and notching 123 points in 80 games last year.
As the chart above shows, however, the concentration of these phenoms in the world’s elite ice hockey league has likely never been higher: Crosby, McDavid and John Tavares all scored at or above a point-per-game pace in 2021-22, with 38-year-old Jason Spezza and 21-year-old Joe Veleno also playing most of the season for their respective teams.
Bedard will likely make his NHL debut at the beginning of 2023-24, when McDavid will only be entering what should be his prime years — and the prospect of the pair duelling for scoring title after scoring title is an extremely enticing one for fans across the league, even if neither meaningfully approaches any of number 99’s major records.
There might never be a true heir to Gretzky’s position atop the hockey universe, but focusing only on that point will mean not fully appreciating the breadth of skill that’s soon to be on display in the NHL.
Ken Campbell of The Hockey News on Bedard at 13
Sam Cosentino of Sportsnet on Bedard at 14
Gare Joyce of The New York Times on Bedard at 16
You can find the code for this piece on GitHub here
At the data scraping and manipulation stage of this particular edition, the most challenging aspect was taking the various text strings in which each player’s vital information (date of birth, height, weight etc.) was contained on hockeyDB.com and converting it into a tidy data structure. This turned into quite an onerous task involving a lot of stringr functions — and I even had to repeat the process for a couple of players whose vitals were laid out slightly differently on the site. It strikes me as the kind of task which is always going to require a lot of fiddly work, but if anyone is aware of any other useful packages which simplify this sort of thing I’d love to hear about them.
Visually, my main goal for this month’s edition was to get to grips with creating polished and publication-ready data tables in R — specifically, using the gt package. As I’ve mentioned before, I use Datawrapper a lot in my day job, and the ease with which you can create really aesthetic-looking tables is one of my favourite things about their platform. Learning and understanding the different elements of gt tables took a bit of time, but the guidance provided by the developers of the package is incredibly helpful — and I think I got there in the end.
In terms of other resources relating to the gt package, this blog post by Dr. Liam D. Bailey is also well worth your time!