This year's NHL draft is considered one of the strongest and deepest of the decade -- not quite up there with the class of 2003, but better than most years. The safest bet in this draft is there will be significant movement of picks, the bane of anyone assembling a mock draft.
It's not quite enough just to match the best players available with the slots, so we'll tab teams that will have reason and means to trade picks and players to move up or down.
John Tavares, forward, London Knights (OHL): Islanders GM Garth Snow has been careful not to tip his hand beyond making it sound like he's very unlikely to move this pick. A pure offensive talent, Tavares is the one player in this draft who can sell tickets, which, Snow's protestations to the contrary, must be a consideration. Some have knocked Tavares' skating, but if he shifts over from center, his position in junior, to the wing, that might be less of a concern. It would certainly be no concern on the power play, an area where Tavares could offer an immediate upgrade.
Victor Hedman, defenseman, Modo (Sweden): With Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and last year's No.1 overall pick Steven Stamkos on hand, Lightning GM Brian Lawton has to look to find an anchor on the blue line. Hedman would be that piece. Some wonder about the towering Swede's ability to be a power-play point man and an offensively creative player. Scouts panned his performance at the world under-20s this winter. Still, he's clearly the most talented defenseman in the draft. Alternative scenario: If Garth Snow surprises with a selection of Hedman as No. 1, Lawton will have to look at either dealing the pick or selecting Tavares and moving Lecavalier or, less likely, St. Louis.
Matt Duchene, center, Brampton Battalion (OHL): Duchene's skating separates him from the other forwards in this draft. He's a dynamic player at both ends of the ice. The Avalanche can look to groom him as their No. 1 center and franchise player, filling the void left with the (eventual) retirement of Joe Sakic. As a pro, after his apprenticeship, Duchene figures to be some sort of Sakic-Peter Forsberg hybrid. It seems unlikely Colorado will move this pick.
Evander Kane, center, Vancouver Giants (WHL): Scouts figure there's a drop at this point in the draft -- not a long drop, just a falloff from the talent at the top of the draft. Nonetheless, there's a good shot Kane could be moved directly into the Thrashers' lineup next season after earning a deserved reputation as a sniper and pure offensive player with 48 goals in 61 regular-season games this season. Still, he impressed scouts when he assumed a checking-line role with the Canadian team that won this year's world under-20s. Chance of the Thrashers moving this pick in trade: low.
Brayden Schenn, center, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL): Kings GM Dean Lombardi has loaded up on defensemen the past couple of drafts and has goaltending talent in the system, so he has to be happy the best player available in the five-slot is a forward. The question is whether that player is Schenn or Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson. The Kings have an assortment of emerging talents, but no forwards who offer the grit Schenn possesses.
Jared Cowan, defenseman, Spokane Chiefs (WHL): The Coyotes haven't spent a first-round pick on a defenseman since 1996 -- quit guessing, it was Dan Focht, who only played 82 NHL games, just 10 with Phoenix. Even though he didn't work out, the Coyotes can't avoid need here. Cowan would have been in the conversation for a place in the top four if he hadn't torn an ACL in mid-winter. Presuming he's on the mend (that was the message put out at the Central Scouting combine), he'd be a fit in this slot. The Coyotes might have their sights set on another defenseman (Oliver Ekman-Larsson or Dmitry Kulikov) or they might be scared by Cowan's injury. The Phoenix pick could be in play in that case.
Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, center, Timra (Sweden): OK, this is a provisional pick. It seems quite likely the big Swede could be selected seventh overall, but it seems like a long shot it will be Leafs GM Brian Burke calling out his name. Burke has announced – loudly -- he will "move heaven and earth" to select John Tavares. Uh, OK. That might be an honest expression of intent or just so much cover to move up into the top five slots.
More likely targets than Tavares are Duchene and Schenn, the latter being the brother of the Leafs' 2008 first-draft choice, defenseman Luke Schenn. Burke has taken the place of former Islanders GM Mike Milbury as Draft Elvis and has engineered big moves in the past, most notably wheeling and dealing to acquire picks to draft the Sedin twins second and third overall in 1999 when he was with Vancouver. He's in a tough spot, having declared Luke Schenn is out of trade discussions, and his only movable asset is defenseman Tomas Kaberle, a depreciating commodity. If Burke is stuck at No. 7, he'll have a headache.
8. Dallas Stars
Dmitry Kulikov, defenseman, Drummondville Voltigeurs (QMJHL): Tabbed here as the Stars' likely first-rounder in the previous mock draft. No reason to change. A lot of first-rate performances in the spring with Drummondville, falling a game short of the Memorial Cup final. Dallas' new GM Joe Nieuwendyk might give Oliver Ekman-Larsson some consideration here.