x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The tough choice

The Canadian goal-scoring whiz or the giant Swedish defenceman who skates, hits and scores?

John Tavares is expected to be the opening pick when the NHL draft begins tonight.
John Tavares is expected to be the opening pick when the NHL draft begins tonight.

The Canadian goal-scoring whiz or the giant Swedish defenceman who skates, hits and scores? Or, maybe, just maybe, the other Canadian offensive talent? In short, those are the questions heading into the 2009 NHL entry draft, which is being hosted this weekend in Montreal.

The first round goes tonight - which is when all the intrigue will play out - with rounds two to seven on Saturday. For the past four or five years, John Tavares has been "The One". A sniper of the first degree, Tavares paced the Oshawa Generals' attack in the Ontario Hockey League for three-and-a-half seasons, racking up 183 goals in 223 games - including a 72-goal campaign in 67 games as a 16-year-old - before being traded to London in January as the Knights powered up for a run at the Memorial Cup.

It didn't work out, but Tavares fired an incredible 32 goals in the final 24 regular season games as a Knight, plus another 10 in 14 play-off games. If you're just tuning in, Tavares scores goals like fish swim: naturally. The same can't be said about his skating, but he's worked to improve and the results are noticeable. Hand-eye coordination, a goal-scorer's knack, Tavares has it. And, for so long now, all the goals and all the hype led to one indisputable conclusion: That the New York Islanders, with the first overall pick, would select a franchise player in Tavares and begin the long journey back to respectability.

To do otherwise would be crazy - and surely, even the Islanders aren't that cuckoo, are they? That's probably a debate for another day, but a couple other prospects forced their way into the equation - Victor Hedman and Matt Duchene. Hedman, like Tavares, appears to be a once-a-decade player. Unlike Tavares, who is listed generously at 6ft tall and 14st, Hedman is a physical specimen as well as sublimely skilled hockey player.

He stands 6ft 6ins before he puts on his skates and weighs in at a solid 16st. And when he puts on his skates, it gets even better. The behemoth blueliner is an all-star all over the ice. Need a point man on the power play, or a shutdown defender in the final minute? Put Hedman on the ice. Need a game-changing bodycheck, or a 90- second serenity shift? Put Hedman on the ice. With his size and skill, the temptation to select Hedman with the first pick - and immediately add an all-star anchor to their blueline for the next decade or two - might prove too much for the Isles general manager Garth Snow.

Plus, while Tavares remains the consensus No 1 pick and all signs point towards NHL stardom, Hedman does appear to be more of a sure thing. The other thing is Duchene, whose stock grew and grew as 2008-09 progressed. Scouts love to see that, because projecting how teenagers are going to pan out when they're full-grown men is tough. On the eve of the draft, Duchene has been tagged with the "most complete player" label.

It would be a jaw-dropper if the Isles selected Duchene first overall - especially since they could trade down and pick up some assets, and probably still get Duchene at No 2 or No 3. Nobody knows what Snow and the Isles will do; the good news is, it looks like they can do no wrong in that the top three prospects all have home run potential. Even in hockey, that's a good thing. smccaig@thenational.ae