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Tavares or Hedman? Suspense builds over No. 1 NHL draft pick

John Tavares poses for a photo at a training facility in Mississauga, Ontario. Tavares is regarded as one of the top prospects in the NHL hockey draft on Friday, June 26 in Montreal. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/David Duprey)

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John Tavares poses for a photo at a training facility in Mississauga, Ontario. Tavares is regarded as one of the top prospects in the NHL hockey draft on Friday, June 26 in Montreal. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/David Duprey)

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 (7 p.m. ET) 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.

Russians aren't expected to be prominent, although 2010 could be their year after a runner-up finish at the world under-18 championships in April.

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.

A subplot of this year's world junior hockey championship in Ottawa was how Tavares and Hedman would compare playing with and against their peers.

Tavares finished the tournament with both the gold medal, after Canada beat Hedman's Swedes in the final, and the tournament's most valuable player award. So that round went to the Canadian.

Tavares finds seams that no one else does below the face-off circles and has a change of pace with the puck that tricks defencemen. He hides the puck, quickly brings it into scoring position and then finishes. Skating may be the weakest of his tools as he's not the type to go end to end.

"He's an above-average skater," Button said. "The skating isn't going to hold him back and it will come with more training and physical maturity as well."

Tavares was heralded as a future first overall pick when he entered the Ontario Hockey League at 14 under an exceptional player clause. His arrival into the NHL feels like a long time coming after four seasons of major junior hockey, during which be became the most prolific scorer in OHL history with 215 career goals for Oshawa and London.

In his sophomore year, Tavares scored 72 goals, but finished second in overall points to Patrick Kane, who was the NHL's first overall pick in 2007. Kane has already played two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks before Tavares even attends his first training camp.

"I can't wait to be selected and be part of a franchise," Tavares said. "I feel I can really contribute."

Hedman didn't endear himself to the Canadian audience in the world junior final. After Canada's Angelo Esposito collided with Sweden's goaltender, Hedman put Esposito in a headlock and punched him.

With his agility, big reach and puck-handling skills, Hedman has the attributes of a Chris Pronger. Hedman isn't afraid to use his big frame as Button discovered when he watched the Swede play for Modo last November.

"If you went to the game, you wouldn't have said he was an 18-year-old kid playing out there," Button said. "He played top minutes, in every situation and the one thing you hear about a lot over here is that he's not a physical guy.

"Victor doesn't consider himself physical, but there were times in that game where he laid guys out. It's not his forte, but it's not something he won't be able to do over here."

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