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Generational talent confirmed as top pick; who could draft him?

NHL Central Scouting confirmed what has been clear for years – and especially since the world junior championship: Connor Bedard is the top prospect for the 2023 draft.

Bedard, who heads up the midterm rankings, won tournament MVP by scoring 23 points in seven games as Canada repeated as gold medal winners. In his first game back with the Regina (Saskatchewan) Pats, the 5-10, 185-pound center scored four goals and two assists in a 6-2 win against the Calgary Hitmen.

Bedard, 17, who entered the Western Hockey League draft early as a 15-year-old, has a league-best 70 points in 29 games. He has a 28-game point streak since being shut out in the opener. Last year, he had 100 points in 62 games.

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With the winner of the draft lottery in April able to move up only 10 spots this year, the bottom 11 teams have a chance to land the generational talent. Here’s a look at the teams with the best chances, starting with the last-place team (stats as of Jan. 12; this file will be updated at various points during the season).

Columbus Blue Jackets (12-27-2, 26 pts.)

They made the biggest offseason splash by signing Johnny Gaudreau, but issues abound. The team is racked with injuries, including No. 1 defenseman Zach Werenski and top six forward Jakub Voracek. Goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, last in the league in goals saved above expected, according to Money Puck, is out with an illness. Gaudreau, who was called out by coach Brad Larsen, responded with a goal and six shots on Jan. 12, but the Blue Jackets lost for the 12th time in 14 games. Bedard would answer the question of who plays between Gaudreau and Patrik Laine.

Chicago Blackhawks (11-25-4, 26 pts.)

The Blackhawks parted ways with Alex DeBrincat, Kirby Dach, Dylan Strome and Dominik Kubalik in the offseason and were playing as expected. But they have won three in a row, moving percentage points ahead of the Blue Jackets. They did it without star Patrick Kane (lower body), who was placed on injured reserve. If the Blackhawks choose to continue their rebuild, they have plenty of unrestricted free agents who could be moved at the deadline, ranging from Max Domi and Andreas Athanasiou to franchise players Kane and Jonathan Toews (who would have to waive their no-movement clauses).

Anaheim Ducks (12-26-4, 28 pts.)

Their minus-77 goal differential is worst in the league. They didn’t get their first regulation win until Nov. 23 and it took them until Dec. 15-17 to get two in a row. Though they had another two-game winning streak in early January, they were outscored 13-3 in their next two games. General manager Pat Verbeek dealt pending UFAs Josh Manson, Hampus Lindholm and Rickard Rakell last season. This year’s UFA list includes John Klingberg and three other defensemen.

Arizona Coyotes (13-23-5, 31 pts.)

The rebuilding team has been hurt by a road-heavy start of the season (26 out of their first 38 games), and their road losing streak has hit 12 games. But they also have lost their last three games at Mullett Arena and seven in a row overall. Defenseman Jakob Chychrun has played well since returning from injury but also had expressed interest in a trade. Bedard would be a good selling point as voters choose whether to approve a new arena in Tempe during a May special election.

San Jose Sharks (13-23-8, 34 pts.)

Erik Karlsson leads all defensemen with 56 points in a resurgent Norris Trophy-caliber season that also earned him an All-Star Game berth. But the Sharks have only four home wins. First-year general manager Mike Grier could choose to continue to remake this team, as he did with an offseason trade of Brent Burns. Plus, he has a decision to make on pending restricted free agent Timo Meier, their leading goal scorer.

Montreal Canadiens (17-22-3, 37 pts.)

The Canadiens went through a 1-9-1 freefall after a strong start, but they have won two of their last three games. Brendan Gallagher will miss at least six weeks with a lower-body injury. The team also holds the first-round pick of the Florida Panthers, who currently sit in the bottom 11.

Vancouver Canucks (17-21-3, 37 pts.)

The Canucks overcome a season-opening 0-5-2 start to top .500 on Dec. 27. But they have lost six out of seven since. They have put up good offensive numbers but are plagued by defensive mistakes and a league-worst penalty kill. No. 1 goalie Thatcher Demko is hurt and wasn’t playing well before the injury. The team announced that Tanner Pearson (hand) is out for the season. Veteran defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson was a healthy scratch on Jan. 12.

Other teams

Philadelphia Flyers (17-18-7, 41): The John Tortorella-led team had a 10-game winless streak following a 7-3-2 start. They’re on an upswing, winning six of their last seven. Travis Konecny has 20 points in a 10-game point streak.

Ottawa Senators (19-19-3, 41 points): The Senators, who made major moves in the offseason, seem to be gelling after a slow start. Josh Norris is out long-term with a shoulder injury.

Florida Panthers (19-20-4, 42): Last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners gave up their first-rounder last season to Montreal for rental defenseman Ben Chiarot. That could come back to haunt them if they win the lottery with long-shot odds.

Buffalo Sabres (20-18-2, 42): They’re new to the list after their three-game losing streak allowed the Detroit Red Wings to pass them in the standings. Tage Thompson is an All-Star and Rasmus Dahlin is playing at that level. But the Sabres have given up at least four goals in each of their last five games.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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