MONTREAL — It wll be high-scoring centre John Tavares who leads the New York Islanders’ rebuilding movement.
As general manager Garth Snow took the podium to announce the first overall pick in the NHL Draft on Friday night, weeks of uncertainty ended for Tavares as his name was called to cheers from a near-full house at the Bell centre.
And television monitors showed that back on Long Island, a Nassau Coliseum packed with Islanders fans also erupted in applause for the exciting offensive player they were hoping — perhaps even demanding — to be selected by their struggling team.
“I had no idea, like everyone else, but obviously, it was a great moment,“ said Tavares, the London Knights star who led the Ontario Hockey League with 58 goals in 56 games this season. “You want to know and you’re anxious, especially for myself because it’s been talked about a long time.
“But it was a big decision for them, for the community and the organization.“
The Tampa Bay Lightning followed by taking rangy defenceman Victor Hedman second overall — the first of seven Swedish players to go in the first round.
Colorado chose Brampton Battalion centre Matt Duchene — an avowed Avalanche fan while growing up in Haliburton, Ont. — with the third overall pick.
The Atlanta Thrashers then picked Vancouver Giants forward Evander Kane fourth and the Los Angeles Kings took centre Brayden Schenn of the Brandon Wheat Kings, as the top five followed exactly the form that most observers predicted.
Rounds two through seven of the draft are to be held today.
The six-foot, 198-pound Tavares has likely completed his four-year stint in junior hockey, during which he broke Peter Lee’s 33-year-old record of 213 career OHL goals. It has been at least three years that he was tabbed as the likely No. 1 pick for 2009.
“I’ve been under the spotlight a long time and I understand its only going to get bigger, but leaving home at 14 years old, away from my family, I knew this is what I wanted,“ he said.
He goes to an Islander team that has had only a few bright moments since its dynasty days of the early 1980s, when Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier and their teammates won four Stanley Cups in a row.
They recently have added young talent like Kyle Okposo and centre Josh Bailey, their ninth overall pick from last year who once played with Tavares on Canada’s under-17 team.
And not long after taking Tavares, Snow swung an all-picks deal with Minnesota to move up to the 12th spot and take Oshawa Generals defenceman Calvin de Haan.
“You have the opportunity there to start with a young core of guys and grow into the future,“ added Tavares. “You can see where Garth Snow is going with a lot of draft picks and players he has.
“We want to bring a winning tradition back to Long Island. That’s what my goal is.“
The six-foot-six Hedman was rookie of the year in the Swedish Elite League and had seven goals and 21 assists in 43 games for the Modo club this season. He also helped Sweden to a silver medal at the world junior championship in January.
The native of the hockey hotbed of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, has often been compared to Anaheim defenceman Chris Pronger for his size and puck-moving abilities.
He said it should help that he has experience playing against mature players in a pro league.
“I know the NHL is another level, but that’s what I’m working toward — it’s a challenge,“ said Hedman, who intends to join the Lightning next season.
Duchene’s stock with scouts rose sharply this season for his combination of speed and strong physical and defensive play.
The five-foot-11, 200-pounder had 21 goals and 48 assists in 59 games this season. He also led Canada to gold at the under-18 Ivan Hlinka tournament in the Czech Republic last summer.
He’s hoping that Avalanche star and captain Joe Sakic decides to play another season. Duchene has an autographed Sakic jersey in his basement.
“He’s been my idol my whole life,“ he said. “He’s someone I modelled my game and my personality after.“
It was no surprise the Thrashers took Kane. With all the talk centred on the big three of Tavares, Hedman and Duchene, they were confident they could get the physical power forward.
“I’ve talked to them since halfway through the season,“ he said. “I felt pretty confident that if I was there, Atlanta would take me and I’m happy they made that decision.“
Schenn, the younger brother of Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn, had 32 goals and 56 assists in 70 games with the Wheat Kings. Schenn was named the WHL’s rookie of the year in 2007-08 after leading first-year players in scoring with 71 points (28 goals, 43 assists).
The Phoenix Coyotes grabbed 17-year-old Swedish defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson with the sixth pick.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were the first Canadian team to pick, and amid the booing from rival Canadiens fans they nabbed forward Nazem Kadri. The 18-year-old centre scored 25 goals and added 53 assists in 56 games with the OHL’s London Knights last season, despite being slowed by a broken jaw.
As a member of the Kitchener Rangers in 2007-08, Kadri had goals nine goals and 17 assists in the playoffs, helping lead them to an OHL championship and a berth in the Memorial Cup final.
“I was a diehard (Montreal) fan growing up, but now I’ve found anew favourite team,“ he said.
The Dallas Stars made forward Scott Glennie the eighth pick and then the Ottawa Senators grabbed defenceman Jared Cowen ninth. The 18-year-old helped lead the Chiefs to the 2008 Memorial Cup championship, and had seven goals and 14 assists with Spokane last season.
The Edmonton Oilers rounded out the top 10 by taking forward Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson.
The quick-footed Swedish winger finished with 17 points in 50 games with Timra of the Swedish Elite League last season. Paajarvi-Svensson has also won back-to-back silver medals with Team Sweden at the world junior championship.
The Canadiens delighted the Bell Centre crowd by taking Montreal native Louis Leblanc with the 18th pick. The six-foot, 169-pound centre had 28 goals, 31 assists and was plus-33 in 60 games with Omaha of the U.S. Hockey League, earning rookie-of-the-year honours.
The 18-year-old will attend Harvard University beginning this fall.
The Vancouver Canucks took centre Jordan Schroeder with the 22nd pick. The diminutive 18-year-old had 45 points in 50 games for the Minnesota Golden Gophers last year.
The Calgary Flames swapped the 20th pick to the New Jersey Devils for the 23rd and 84th picks. They snagged Tim Erixon with the 23rd pick. The six-foot-two defenceman, the son of former NHLer Jan Erixon, had two goals and five assists in 42 games with Skelleftea of the Swedish Elite League.