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Tough Choice at Number One

by Paul Branecky / Carolina Hurricanes
There’s been a lot of discussion as to who the first overall pick in this Friday’s NHL draft will be. Not necessarily from the New York Islanders themselves, who have made up their mind but are being dramatically secretive about their choice, but from the rest of the hockey world.

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John Tavares, the high-scoring winger, was expected to be the pick years ago after being granted early entry into the Ontario Hockey League as an “exceptional player.” With 215 goals in his four-year junior career, he did not disappoint.

However, big Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman has given him a run for his money, even taking hold of the International Scouting Services’ number one ranking for the months of November and December. Tavares then grabbed it back with an exceptional performance for Canada at the World Junior Championships.

Even Matt Duchene, a talented two-way center from the OHL, has gained some support for the top spot. Although he’ll probably still be picked after Tavares and Hedman, Colorado should get a nice player at number three if they choose to stay put.

So, who to take with the first pick? The dynamic forward who is a sure bet to score goals at the next level, or the 6-foot-6 franchise defenseman who excels at both ends of the ice?

“It’s as simple as this,” said Tony MacDonald, the Hurricanes’ director of amateur scouting. “If you want the goal scorer and the guy who’s going to be able to put pucks in the net and be a highly-productive offensive player, you can’t go wrong by taking John Tavares. If you want the defenseman, the big, strong horse that is going to be able to anchor your blue line for 10 years and give you a little bit of everything, some offense and physical presence, then you go the other way.

“I think it’s a pick ‘em,” he continued.  “I’m happy that we’re not making that decision.”

Although the Canes are actually going to make their first pick at 27, barring a trade between now and Friday evening, let’s assume that they were in a position to make that choice. Who would they take?

MacDonald didn’t come right out and say it, but it sounds as though Tavares is the number one player as far as Carolina is concerned. That stems from the instant impact he could make and the team’s already-held weariness of drafting blueliners with their early choices.

“If you look at the premier defensemen in the NHL, so many of them are on their second and third teams or are not with the teams that originally drafted them, as good as they are now and as good as they turned out to be,” he said. “That’s a peculiar tendency that we’ve noticed over the years. I think defense is a tough position to play, and with young defenseman I think some teams lose their patience and want the player to better than he’s really going to be at a young age.”

A recent example of that trend is unrestricted free agent Jay Bouwmeester, the third overall pick in 2002, who took a few years to develop into an elite NHL rearguard with Florida and looks set to play his prime years with a new team next season. Of the seven defensemen taken in the first round that year who made it to the NHL, none of them, including current Hurricanes Joni Pitkanen (fourth overall - Philadelphia) and Anton Babchuk (21st overall – Chicago) are playing for the teams that drafted them.

Those case studies make the choice a bit easier for Carolina, although they may have been leaning in Tavares’ direction regardless. MacDonald believes that the Islanders are as well.

“My prediction would be that they’ll go with the goal scoring, because it’s pretty hard to get,” he said.

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