Here is our first 2009 mock draft heading into the NHL's official proceedings on June 26-27 in Montreal:
John Tavares, center, London (OHL): JT might not have started the season as the likely first overall pick. Victor Hedman probably would have had a majority of scouts in his corner. But Tavares has done everything that could possibly be asked of him this season, including, but not limited to, a sensational MVP performance at the world juniors. Some wonder if his play was down a notch late in the season because of injury -- he missed games on two separate occasions with injuries to both shoulders. Some scouts like him on the wing at the next level. Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has vowed he'd move mountains to move to the top slot to select Tavares, who was the talk of hockey in Toronto at age 13. Will the Islanders trade down? Well, they did it twice in the first round last year to select Josh Bailey, an out-of-the-box pick.
Victor Hedman, defense, Modo (Sweden): Hedman's performance at the world juniors didn't get the same raves as Tavares' and maybe those comparing him to Chris Pronger were reconsidering. Still, he looks like a franchise defenseman and a perfect fit for Tampa Bay; maybe Tavares would look good five years from now on Steven Stamkos' wing, but Hedman offers yang to last year's No. 1's yin. Hedman says he tries to model his game after Nicklas Lidstrom, and at 18, he does a passable impression -- if Lidstrom were 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds. Like most Swedes, Hedman would probably play one more season in Sweden before joining his NHL club. That's a point he'll get pressed about in interviews at NHL Central Scouting's combine. Another question: Why didn't he look for his offense more at the under-20s?
Matt Duchene, center, Brampton (OHL): Duchene is a dynamic talent: He's a playmaker and a finisher, with a star's ability and a role player's work ethic. He captained the Canadian team to a gold medal at the Ivan Hlinka Invitational last summer. Duchene missed a couple of weeks with injury before Christmas, which had to be the reason he was left off the Canadian roster for the world juniors. With no guarantees that Joe Sakic will be back (and with the certainty Sakic won't be around for a long time), Duchene would fill a crying need. Powerfully built at 5-11 and 200 pounds, Duchene has a low center of gravity (probably a few inches north of his ankles), making him hard to knock off the puck.
Evander Kane, center, Vancouver (WHL): Sorting out Nos. 3 through 6 was a favorite pastime of NHL draftniks this winter. Kane has more offensive upside than anyone except Tavares in the draft: He put up 48 goals and 48 assists in 61 games for the Giants this season. He helped his case when he was called up as an emergency fill-in for the Canadian team at the world juniors. He not only moved over to the wing for the tournament, but also impressed in his role on an effective checking line for Canada. Not 170 pounds, but not scared, either.
Magnus Svensson-Paajarvi, forward, Timra (Sweden): The best skater at the draft, an absolute blur. Svensson-Paajarvi first impressed at the 2008 world juniors. He went into the under-20s last winter with even higher expectations, but didn't quite elevate his game. His father is a hockey agent back home with a client list that includes Henrik Zetterberg. The Kings have no need for a blueliner here (recent drafts, including last year's No. 1 Drew Doughty, have the defense corps well-stocked. Svensson-Paajarvi has a decent frame to build on (6-foot-1, 200 pounds, and maybe still growing).
Brayden Schenn, center, Brandon (WHL): The cash-strapped Coyotes have a lot of great young pieces and might be looking for a blueliner here -- a pick in play, perhaps? The best possible player (BPA) here is Schenn, a two-way game-smart center who is the brother of Toronto rookie defenseman Luke. By midseason, most scouts believed Evander Kane had inched ahead of Brayden because of offensive upside -- it was easier to see Kane than Schenn as a 40-goal, 100-point guy at the next level. That said, Schenn would be a better complement to a sniper. And he plays with the most edge to his game of any player in the top 10.
Jared Cowan, defense, Spokane (WHL): Cowan is the largest freestanding question mark in the draft. Last season, he was the defining player for the Spokane Chiefs, the winners of the Memorial Cup. Into midwinter, he looked to be a certain top-5 pick, maybe as high as No. 3. (At least one scout I talked to liked him more than Hedman, even though Cowan isn't a match for the big Swede's offensive talent.) But Cowan's season ended shortly after the major junior prospects game in January with a torn-up knee. The selection of Cowan will be gut-check time for any NHL club. Teams will have to weigh the risks and rewards of drafting a premier talent with a torn ACL. His knee will be the most thoroughly inspected hinge at the NHL combine. Will Toronto remain in this slot? Not likely.
8. Dallas Stars
Dmitry Kulikov, defense, Drummondville (QMJHL): Kulikov made a seamless transition to major junior hockey since coming over from Russia last fall. The Stars can't count on Sergei Zubov, as injuries have finally taken their toll on one of the league's most underrated talents. Kulikov as Zubov redux? Quite possible, though he's a little less dynamic offensively than Zubov was at the same stage.