SOME NHL talent evaluators, among them Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, abide by a rule of thumb when weighing which elite prospect to draft: Take the defenseman over the forward. The true shut-down defender is harder to come by, the thinking goes, and he'll play six more minutes a game than even the most dominant first-liner. "That's the approach if the two players are equal," says Burke. "But I don't see these guys as equal. Not after what Tavares did in that tournament."
"These guys" are Ontario-born wunderkind forward John Tavares and 6'6", 220-pound Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman, the two prospects vying to be the top pick in this June's draft. "That tournament" was the World Junior Championship, which ended with Canada beating Sweden 5--1 in the Jan. 5 final. The preternaturally talented Tavares, 18, was named tournament MVP, scoring eight times and adding to the mystique that has surrounded him since he broke Wayne Gretzky's record for a 16-year-old with 72 goals in the OHL in 2006--07. In a preliminary round of the World Juniors, Tavares scored twice in 48 seconds to resuscitate Canada after it fell behind 3--0 to then unbeaten Team USA. Then in the semis, with Canada trailing Russia 5--4 and time dwindling, Tavares dug the puck off the half-boards and flicked a blind backhander toward the net that led to Jordan Eberle's knocking in the tying goal with 5.4 seconds left. The sold-out crowd in Ottawa got nutty. "Tavares's magical play!" exclaimed TSN broadcaster Pierre McGuire (yes, the same guy, box).
Hedman was decidedly less spectacular in the tournament, finishing with two points and going a solid +4, but despite Burke's post--World Juniors assessment, the 18-year-old defenseman remains very much in the mix for No. 1. Hedman's sheer size and reach, combined with excellent skating ability and uncommon hockey sense—"his head is his strongest weapon," says Swedish juniors coach Par Marts—make him a candidate to have an immediate impact in the NHL. And, says Blackhawks assistant G.M. Rick Dudley, "he will only get better.... guys that size have a tendency to improve more than smaller players." Think Chris Pronger meets Nicklas Lidstrom.
The determination of who'll be drafted first—as of Sunday the last-place Islanders would have had the best chance to win the five-team lottery—will sort itself out over the next three months as Hedman returns to play on the top pairing for Modo, the storied Swedish Elite League team that has produced such NHL stars as Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund and the Sedin twins. Tavares, who had 25 goals and 52 points in 31 games for the middling Oshawa Generals before the World Juniors, was traded to the OHL's Midwest Division--leading London Knights last week; he'll likely be in for a long playoff battle for the Memorial Cup.
Before last year's draft a similar dilemma arose around the No. 1 pick: forward Steven Stamkos or defenseman Drew Doughty? When the Lightning won the lottery and quickly announced it would select Stamkos, the Kings, at No. 2, "saved a lot of debate," says Los Angeles G.M. Dean Lombardi. "We knew we would take [Doughty] and we just focused on him." Both players are in the NHL, and Doughty has been arguably the Kings' best backliner.
So maybe winding up as the lottery runner-up this year wouldn't be so bad: no agita and, as Oilers assistant G.M. Kevin Prendergast says, "whoever picks second will be very happy. There is no loss."
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JANA CHYTILOVA/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (TAVARES)
JUNIOR MOMENTS Tavares was more impressive in the worlds than Hedman (inset).
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES (HEDMAN)
[See caption above]