Prior to last year, only five players had ever received the CHL’s so called Exceptional Status. This allows players to enter the CHL a year younger than normal, at 15 rather than 16. So it came as a shock to many when two players applied for the status for the 2019-20 season.
Matthew Savoie and Shane Wright both hoped to play their next season in the WHL and OHL respectively. Both had dominated each of their youth hockey leagues, and were clearly head and shoulders above the rest of their age group as well as the group a year ahead of them. To seek better competition and avoid having to play another year in a league they were already lighting up, Savoie and Wright applied for Exceptional Status.
After a long process including interviews, scouting, and much more we don’t know about, Shane Wright was accepted and Matt Savoie denied. Savoie is thought to have been denied more because of his and his family’s reluctance to go the WHL route than his actual talent level, while Wright has gone on to shock even his biggest supporters as he sports a point per game average, similar to Connor McDavid’s 15 year old campaign.
Fast forward to now and a whopping three athletes have applied for CHL Exceptional Status. According to Elliotte Friedman, Connor Bedard, Brayden Yager, and Riley Heidt have all submitted their application.
Bedard has been on radars for a long time with his goal scoring prowess. Last season he scored over two goals per game and went on streaks of not just goals but hat tricks. This year, playing kids up to three years his senior in the CSSHL, he has continued his goal scoring rampage at over a goal per game. The league’s youngest contributing player is the leading point getter and top goal scorer.
Brayden Yager and Riley Heidt are partners in crime as they torch Saskatchewan’s midget league as linemates on the Saskatoon Contacts. Each float around a point per game as two of leagues youngest players. Two highly skilled players that immediately stand out when you watch them.
All three players are playing in Western Canada and, if accepted, would spend the season in the WHL. The WHL has had a surge in talent with Matthew Savoie last year as well as a deep group of other 2004 born players expected to be high impact junior hockey players. The age group below the trio is also thought to be heavy on Western Canadian talent by many I have heard from.
The trio of Bedard, Yager, and Heidt are all eligible for the 2023 draft. Bedard ranks as my #1 for that draft while Heidt and Yager are my 4th and 5th ranked prospects. Between them I have Adam Fantilli of Kimball Union and Matvei Michkov of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. For me, there is a clear gap between Bedard and the pair of Saskatoon Contacts linemates, with a little gap between those two.
The question now becomes: which, if any, of the trio will get accepted?
The immediate question with all of them is size. The three are all sub 6-foot tall and still physically developing. Heidt and Bedard are both approximately 5’8” or a bit above. This concern is deepened by the recent hit laid on Matthew Savoie, who was playing in the WHL at the time despite being denied Exceptional Status (why he’s playing in the WHL anyway is deserving on an article of its own). The borderline hit knocked Savoie unconscious and immediately raised question of if a player of his age should be facing off against 20 year olds.
With that in mind, I would still predict that Bedard will be accepted. His goal scoring talent, hockey IQ, and pure skill makes his talent undeniable. He’s already the CSSHL’s best player and would have to return to the league if denied. While his height might be of concern, Bedard is an extremely strong and beefy athlete at 5’8” and 165 pounds. If I had to give odds, I’d say there’s a 65% chance he receives Exceptional Status.
Brayden Yager’s size is less of a concern at just under 6 foot– the real question is whether he’s worthy of the status on his talent level alone. He’s the Saskatchewan midget league’s 17th leading scorer. While impressive as the 5th youngest player in the circuit, it’s not quite Exceptional Status worthy. While a phenomenal hockey player, he isn’t exceptional and I don’t think he’s on the level of Savoie or Wright. I’d only give Yager about 15% odds at the achievement.
Heidt is much the same. An immensely skilled, natural center with terrific skating ability, but not at the Exceptional Status level. And being only 5’8”, I’d say there’s almost no chance he gets it. I actually rank Heidt above Yager because I think he has a higher skill level and ceiling, but with his size he just wouldn’t be able to get by in the WHL at this point.
Come when the decision is made on the three star youngsters, I’d hope we get to see at least Bedard in the WHL. The WHL is the most physical of the three CHL leagues and the recent hit laid on Matthew Savoie complicates matters, but Bedard is an exceptional prospect and deserves a shot.