Suspense builds over No. 1 NHL draft pick

John Tavares or Victor Hedman?

John Tavares

John Tavares or Victor Hedman?

The New York Islanders have the No. 1 pick in the NHL entry draft Friday in Montreal. Tavares, a crafty centre from Oakville, Ont., who scores devastating goals, and Hedman, a big, agile Swedish defenceman who plays beyond his years, top the prospects list.

Now that players become unrestricted free agents after seven years in the league, clubs want their top draft picks to be able to contribute immediately upon entering the NHL.

“You have to look at who is going to have the biggest impact on your team and who is going to have that impact the soonest,” said Tod Button, the Calgary Flames director of scouting. “With the new collective bargaining agreement, you want to get guys into your system.”

By that rationale, Hedman looks like the best bet. The six-foot-six, 220-pound defenceman played almost 22 minutes a game against men in the Swedish Elite League for Modo last season.

“A very mature young player,” says Goran Stubb, the NHL’s director of European scouting.

Tavares, six feet and 195 pounds, spent the last four years in the Ontario Hockey League with players under 21.

But a defenceman’s transition into the NHL is more difficult than a forward’s because mistakes on the blue-line are so costly to their club.

There’s less pressure on Tavares at forward. For a team trying to work its way out of the NHL’s cellar, the kind of goals he scores puts bums in seats.

“It’s his ability to get into the holes and find the scoring chances when it doesn’t look like there’s anything there,” Button said. “His vision and his hands are great.”

The 2009 NHL entry draft is Friday (TSN, 5 p.m.) and Saturday in Montreal where a total of 211 players will be chosen.

The hype has been all Tavares and Hedman although there are others who could make their mark in the NHL as early as next season: Matt Duchene from Haliburton, Ont.; Winnipeg’s Scott Glennie; Vancouver’s Evander Kane; Saskatoon’s Brayden Schenn; American Jordan Schroeder and Sweden’s Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson.

“There’s a lot of solid players and players who are underrated because there’s so much talk of Tavares and Hedman at the top,” Button said. “The first four or five guys are really good, then there’s another group of about 15 guys and then there’s a group of about 20.

“There’s not a big difference between five and 15 and 20 and 40.”

This is a good draft for the Swedes as half a dozen could go in the first round. Jacob Josefson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Tim Erixon, David Rundblad and Carl Klingberg are all highly rated along with Hedman and Paajarvi-Svensson.

The Islanders are the only club currently with multiple picks in the opening round at No. 1 and No. 26. Toronto has the seventh pick, Ottawa ninth, Edmonton is No. 10, Montreal No. 18, Calgary picks 20th and Vancouver is No. 22.

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