To say John Tavares' star has fallen would be a stretch, but it seems he's no longer the consensus No. 1 pick.
A little more than a year ago, there was a push to change the NHL entry draft rules to accommodate Tavares as a 17-year-old, while the Leafs were examining whether they could fast-track him on a minor-league contract, amid talk that an all-out rebuild could see a last-place Toronto team pick him first overall.
Now, some NHL scouts contacted by Sun Media are wondering if his No. 1 ranking will be challenged in the coming season. His third OHL campaign with the Oshawa Generals saw his goal total reduced from 72 to 40, though his 118 points in eight fewer games than 2006-07 was not a significant drop.
"I would say he let up last year, that he wasn't as intense," one scout said. "The passion to score when he goes from the blueline in wasn't as great, but he's still an elite athlete.
"Maybe it's because of (the attention given) Steven Stamkos, or that his buddies such as Sam Gagner are already in the NHL. There's just a lot going on in his head right now."
Another scout said Tavares' dumping of Siskinds Sports Management and primary agent Bryan Deasley last season for the higher profile Creative Artists Agency "raised some red flags" among NHL teams. But the same scout said it was too early to think Tavares could not retain Central Scouting's top perch by June.
"Maybe he got stale last year, but this is a big year coming up for him," said the scout.
"We can have a tendency in this business to over-critique a player such as John," added a third scout.
One prospects website, Hockey's Future, talked to a senior NHL scout who said he'd have no hesitation telling his team to pick 6-foot-5 Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman ahead of Tavares. Another player moving up the top-10 list is forward Brayden Schenn, younger brother of Luke, the Leafs' top pick this year.
Reached yesterday in Ottawa where he had been attending the Team Canada world junior evaluation camp, Tavares said last season was hardly a setback, but he knows he will be under heavier scrutiny this season.
"You'll always be tested," he said. "My goal total was down last year, but I think I was among the best points-per-game players in the league and I became more of a playmaker. That was another tool to put in my toolbox.
"There are some good young players out there, but I just want to get drafted as high as I can."
Both Tavares and Oshawa coach and general manager Chris DiPiero denied the persistent rumour that he wants a trade to a clear-cut Memorial Cup contender as the Gens regroup with a younger lineup and new ownership.
"There's nothing to that story, because John is a big part of our team," said DePiero. "We want to help him realize his goals. I can't tell yet if we'll be an X team or a Y team, but together with John, we'll work that out on a game-by-game basis.
"He's a special player."
Tavares said he intended to finish his career with the Generals.
"I have the utmost respect for Adam Graves and the new owners (which include Florida Panthers coach Peter DeBoer)," Tavares said. "Hopefully, we're going to put the pieces in place."
If they try to deal him, the Gens would be giving up their top box-office draw and would have to find a team willing to give them a significant package in return.