Draft filled with first-round knockouts

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 2:39 PM ET

Here's a closer look at the the three players -- forward John Tavares, defenceman Victor Hedman and forward Matt Duchene -- who are battling it out to be drafted No. 1 Friday evening in Montreal and seven others who have NHL scouts drooling. Tavares started the season as the clear-cut top pick but Hedman quickly closed the gap and Duchene finished strong to make it a three-horse race that will go down to the wire.

Top Three

John Tavares

Position: Centre

Size: 6-feet 195 lbs.

Team: London Knights, OHL

08-09 STATS: 56 GP, 58-46-104

At least one prominent scout was glad to see Sweden's Victor Hedman in the flesh, working out at the recent NHL scouting combine in Toronto. If for no other reason than a respite in the John Tavares bashing.

"This kid has been picked apart by people for four years," said the scout, whose team is not selecting in the top two in Montreal on June 26. "I think it's safe to say he can score and generate offence. Let's give him a break."

Indeed, Tavares has been so scrutinized on these shores that it's immaterial to some that he had 433 Ontario Hockey League points in 237 games. After the glare briefly lifted when Canada beat Sweden in the world junior final and Hedman didn't dominate, the critics came back, questioning Tavares' skating and pumping Brampton centre Matt Duchene as perhaps the better long-term prospect.

Tavares had to chuckle when asked if he'd found the NHL scouting combine and a trip to watch the Stanley Cup final to be pressure packed.

"It's been my life the past four years," he said.

"I've been in the spotlight since I was a kid and I'm still a kid."

Yet Tavares is candid about what he has to work on and obliged many media requests early in the season to talk about his supposed fall to second place amid the Hedman hype.

Quite unintentionally, he fed the monster at the combine when asked in one team interview which celebrity he could be if given the chance. He picked Michael Jordan, a comparison that Vincent Lecavalier suffered for in 1998 when then-Tampa Bay owner Art Williams billed him as the NHL's answer to His Airness.

If the New York Islanders do get cold feet, Tavares might end up with Lecavalier in Tampa, which owns the second pick.

"I think I realized after (2007-08 with the Oshawa Generals) what I really had to do to improve," Tavares said. "I needed to change some things. My talent was always there with my offence, but I wanted to be a complete player, be a winner, be a leader."

Sun Media's scout said Tavares made those strides after being traded to the London Knights and going through a couple of playoff rounds.

"Life's a little different when you have the Hunter brothers in your face every shift, every day," the scout said.

On Long Island, the fans know they need the blueline presence that Hedman could provide, but after years without a marquee scorer in the Bryan Trottier-Pat LaFontaine class, and with a paltry 201 goals last season, they are uneasy about letting Tavares slip by.

Tavares says he'll go anywhere to start his career, anxious to erase any arrogance he might have projected from his handlers' attempts to get around the NHL draft's age restrictions. He missed the 2008 class by five days on his birth certificate and there was widespread feeling after two seasons of big OHL numbers that he had little else to prove.

"It wasn't the way I wanted to approach things," he says now. "It was something that didn't have to happen.

"It's the same thing about me going to Europe, where I never had interest in going, or playing with the Toronto Marlies (an idea floated by Leafs GM John Ferguson to take some heat off himself). It's nice to be here now and that it's all behind me.

"I want to make a club first, be a guy who is counted on and take it from there."

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Victor Hedman

Position: Defence

Size: 6-foot-6, 220 lbs.

Team: Modo, Swedish Elite League

08-09 STATS: 43 GP, 7-14-21

One of the first English words Victor Hedman recalls he learned in kindergarten in Sweden was "horse."

That's a term bound to be heard frequently the next few years to describe the 6-foot-6 stud defenceman -- think The Horse From Ornskoldsvik -- as he settles into the National Hockey League.

Hedman is anxious to show the scouts, particularly the New York Islanders, that he's a thoroughbred after losing ground to John Tavares at the world junior championship in Ottawa.

"Obviously, I was a little depressed about the worlds, that I didn't live up to my potential and didn't play to my best level," Hedman said. "I played the defensive part when I'm used to playing a little more of the offensive part. But I did whatever it takes to win and I helped my team get to the final.

"But it was a big failure that (Sweden) didn't win. I didn't play good, I didn't play bad, I played on an average level and that's not good enough for me."

In two world junior gold-medal games against Tavares, Hedman's team has lost both by a combined score of 8-3, he has three tournament points and is a plus-9. Tavares has 20 points in 15 WJC games, yet it's unfair to make that the measuring stick. Scouts are certainly reluctant in this age of Chris Pronger and Zdeno Chara to say a kid of this size with Nicklas Lidstrom-type puck sense shouldn't be viewed as the best long-range prospect.

Hedman met Lidstrom when the prospects were put on display during the Stanley Cup final. But he's most keen on keeping Ornskoldsvik's reputation as the Kirkland Lake of Sweden, adding to a list of the small town's stars such as Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund and the Sedins.

Hedman said the media attention thrust upon him in Ottawa was a shock to his system, whereas Tavares has been under the glare for four years. But Hedman believes he has some advantages on Tavares.

"I played two years against men (in the Swedish Elite League) so I know what it's all about," Hedman said. "The SEL is one of the best in Europe and (scouts) say the last one was a big year for me.

"It would be a big honour to be No. 1 and I want to come to a team that believes in me and thinks of me as an important player. That's up to me to show those guys that I'm ready to step in.

"I'm big and I know the physical part of the game is big over here. I have to step up my physical game, but I'm not worried. I can't wait to show it. I think I can make the jump."

Hedman thought he held up well at the NHL scouting combine in May, testing in a room packed full of scouts and doctors, as well as in team interviews. He tamed a mass media scrum that lasted 20 minutes.

"I would see myself as a good two-way defenceman who can play in all kinds of different situations," Hedman said. "That's the biggest reason (he could go No. 1). I'm also very dedicated to do good for my team. I do whatever it takes. I hate to lose and my winning mentality is one of my biggest (advantages)."

He and Tavares met briefly at the combine and he described his Canadian counterpart as "down to earth."

"John is such a good player and it's such a big pleasure to be compared to him. It's close to the draft now and obviously the hype will get bigger yet."

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Matt Duchene

Position: Centre

SIZE: 5-foot-11, 200 lbs.

Team: Brampton Battalion, OHL

08-09 STATS: 57 GP, 31-48-79

Unless the Vancouver Canucks are willing to trade up to a top-three draft position, the Matt Duchene-Cory Hodgson reunion tour is off.

It's a friendship born on a little driveway rink in Haliburton, Ont., where the two would cavort for hours while Matt's father Vince manned the garden hose before and after.

"We used to tease my dad and call him Walter (Gretzky) because of how dedicated he was to building the rink," Duchene laughed. "Cody and I have been buddies a long time. That rink was a huge part of my developing my skill. It wasn't very big, so I had to learn to do stuff in tight areas and I always had guys over to play some 1-on-1. You were getting quick feet and quick hands."

Duchene and Hodgson went on to the Brampton Battalion of the OHL and each has been a valued member of the national junior program. Duchene won three gold medals in eight months at under-18 competitions.

But thanks to Duchene's rising star at NHL Central Scouting, which ranked him the second-best overall skater to John Tavares, a happy West Coast reunion seems out the question.

Duchene, a 79-point centre, won't be sitting long after Tavares and Victor Hedman are taken and some wonder if Duchene isn't the more complete package than Tavares and might go higher.

"It's just great I was able to fill up my potential and get up there with those two," Duchene said. "It's something I didn't expect at all.

"I'm not an overly big or strong guy, I just try to be all-around and I love to show up for the playoffs. That's usually where I excel, in the OHL or in minor hockey. Hopefully, that's pretty attractive when it comes to being scouted by the NHL."

Hodgson's re-assignment by the Canucks, who picked him 10th in 2008, was Duchene's gain.

"He's been kind of a trailblazer for me, I've seen everything he has gone through," Duchene said. "It was a real family atmosphere this year, but really sad when (the Battalion's playoff run ended in the final against Windsor).

"It was great to share that experience with Cody. I would ask him questions about the next step and he was awesome, helping me early in the season with my consistency. (Battalion coach) Stan Butler also helped me round out my game."

Duchene played a role in the Canadian under-18 team's drive to a world championship, getting a chance to work with Pat Quinn.

"That's a highlight of my hockey career," he said. "I wasn't expecting to get picked for that roster and having Pat as coach was unbelievable. He's a knowledgeable guy who treats you like an adult."

E.J. McGuire of Central Scouting piled on the plaudits for the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Duchene in his final report:

"A pure offensive player who also is a great penalty killer. A pure sniper, he plays the point on the power-play and is a threat to score on the penalty kill as well. He reminds me, probably most of the new breed of snipers, Patrick Kane, Sam Gagner and Steven Stamkos, as he grows into his offensive position in the NHL."

Comparisons have also been drawn out a lot further to Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic. Duchene went through a boyhood phase of worshipping Sakic, Patrick Roy and Peter Forsberg of the Colorado Avalanche.

Heading into the draft, the Avs are picking third.

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Seven More Reasons To Drool

In addition to early first-round favourites John Tavares, Victor Hedman and Matt Duchene, here are seven other players expected to go in or around the top 10 at the draft June 26-27 in Montreal.

Keep in mind some teams will draft the best player rather than shore up a particular need and vice-versa.

Ryan Ellis

Position: Defence

Size: 5-foot-9, 173 lbs.

Team: Windsor Spitfires, OHL

2008-09 Stats: 57 GP, 22-67-89

The skinny: One of the smallest players in the draft, Ellis proved he could run with the big boys when he made Team Canada juniors as one of two 17-year-olds. Modeling his game in part after the fluid Brian Rafalski of the Red Wings, he was a power-play specialist, who has evolved into an all-around player.

Too bad Phoenix didn't move operations to Hamilton, because this Steeltown native could have been available around the time the Coyotes are picking sixth.

Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson

Position: Left wing

Size: 6-foot-1, 201 lbs.

Team: Timra, Sweden

2008-09 Stats: 50 GP, 7-10-17

The skinny: This guy's only problem in the NHL might be finding a seamstress to fit his full surname on his sweater.

He generated the same kind of headlines as John Tavares as a 14-year-old in youth hockey when he tore up a nationally televised youth tournament and made the Swedish national junior team at 16.

He's shifty and in the words of NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb "is absolutely fearless on the ice," which includes the smaller North American surface.

Paajarvi out-shone countryman/defenceman Victor Hedman in many facets at the world junior tournament in Ottawa.

Evander Kane

Position: Centre

Size: 6-feet 1, 176 lbs.

Team: Vancouver Giants, WHL

2008-09 STATS: 61 GP, 48-48-96

The skinny: One-time Giants teammate Milan Lucic was a huge influence on Kane, who almost had one penalty minute for every point this season.

A polished member of the national junior program and considered close to, if not the best, power forward available in the first round, "Commander" Kane, re-joined Team Canada juniors as an injury replacement after being cut and made a name for himself at the world championship.

He draws comparisons to Eric Staal, but grew up a huge Jarome Iginla fan.

"It's gone well, but I have to get one more step," Kane said. "Playing in Canada would be a cool thing and a great opportunity, but whatever team takes me, I'm more than happy."

Jordan Schroeder

Position: Centre

Size: 5-foot-8, 175 lbs.

Team: University of Minnesota, NCAA 2008-09

2008-09 Stats: 32 GP, 13-27-40

The skinny: Brimming with confidence, he has the benefit of a year of college hockey already under his belt.

Asked by one team at the NHL scouting combine to pick between Maria Sharapova, Barack Obama and Sean Avery as a dinner guest, he picked the rascally Avery because he's convinced they share some traits. Boston point machine Marc Savard might be a better comparison.

A member of Team USA, he had three goals and eight assists to lead the Americans at the world juniors. His speed and tenacity lead him to a lot of scoring opportunities.

Brayden Schenn

Position: Centre

Size: 6-feet, 198 lbs.

Team: Brandon Wheat Kings, WHL

2008-09 Stats: 70 GP, 32-56-88

The skinny: Younger brother of Luke Schenn of the Leafs, but plays a different position and likely will need a bit more seasoning after his sibling jumped right into the NHL.

A great passer, his strength is hanging on to the puck in traffic to feed his wingers and using his size to retrieve it. As Brayden's matured, he's used Luke as both a measuring stick for his own play and for some tips on handling NHL life. Could he wind up in Toronto with Luke?

"Our parents have talked about us maybe being on the same team," Brayden said. "And having one plane ticket to see both of us. But I'd just be happy getting picked."

Jared Cowen

Position: Defence

Size: 6-foot-5, 225 lbs.

Team: Spokane Chiefs, WHL

2008-09 Stats: 48 GP, 7-14-21

The skinny: A gruesome ACL injury on Jan. 30 forced him to miss the second half of the season and he skipped the physical testing at the combine as a precaution. But many scouts are quite familiar with the big man, who already looks like a player in his early 20s. He hopes to attend the 2010 national junior camp this summer.

"I couldn't show anyone what I could do (at the combine)," he lamented. "But there wasn't a lot of criticism. Most people just wanted to ask about my knee, but there wasn't really any bad news.

"There's no one player I pattern my game after, but everyone just (assumes) it's Braydon Coburn or Chris Pronger, the big guys. Hopefully, I'm like them all, mixed into one."

Scott Glennie

Position: Centre/right wing

Size: 6-foot-1, 177 lbs.

Team: Brandon Wheat Kings, WHL

2008-09 Stats: 55 GP, 28-42-70

The skinny: Fellow prospect Brayden Schenn's regular linemate, Glennie was in the former's shadow much of the season, before his speed and finish garnered him his own headlines. The late bloomer will attract a lot of attention because he can play two positions and isn't afraid of going after pucks in hard-to-get-to places.

The native Manitoban was ranked seventh among North American skaters, but could break into the top 10

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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