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A Wealth of Talent in the Top 3 Picks

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning
We’ve heard about precocious center John Tavares being a top pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft since he was 14. It seems even longer than that.

Two years ago, a big, mobile defenseman from Sweden named Victor Hedman began the debate on whether he or Tavares would go No. 1.

Center Matt Duchene is new to the conversation, after an eye-popping season with the Brampton Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League.

After a long, difficult, but thrilling process, they will almost certainly be the first three names called at the draft on June 26 in Montreal and most likely be playing in the league in 2009-10 as teenagers.

The New York Islanders are slated to pick first and Lightning Executive Vice President and GM Brian Lawton said a team would have to “knock their socks off,” for them to trade the second selection.

Tavares, Hedman and Duchene were invited to Tampa Bay to meet with team officials, work out for them, and see the facilities and the city last week. They did not disappoint.

“It’s an exciting time for the organization and an exciting time for the fans when you see the quality of these young men,” Lawton said. “I wish we could take all three.”

Lawton said if you look around the league, it’s proving to be prudent to keep your top picks and build a strong foundation with them.

Just look at some of the top teams in the league:

*Pittsburgh selected Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Evgeny Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury in the top two picks from 2003-06.

*Chicago took Cam Barker No. 3 in 2004, Jonathan Toews No. 3 in 2006 and Patrick Kane No. 1 in 2007.

*Washington got Alex Ovechkin No. 1 in 2004 and also nabbed Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green in the first round.

*Carolina selected Eric Staal No. 2 in 2003.

The Lightning nabbed Steven Stamkos No. 1 last year and likely will have their choice of two of the top three gems to add to a strong core of talent.

“Whatever happens, the player we select should be with our club next season,” Lawton said. “We should be developing him internally with our coaches and with our staff. That’s their best chance at long-term success.”

Tavares: The goal scorer

Tavares, a 6-foot, 195-pound dynamo, has already met some big-time expectations.

He was the youngest player ever drafted in the OHL, petitioning to go in a year early. He scored his first goal in the league three days after his 15th birthday.

Tavares’ 72 goals in 2006-07 broke Wayne Gretzky’s single-season mark for 16-year olds in the OHL. He finished as the all-time leading goal scorer in OHL history with 215 (247 games), two more than Peter Lee.

“He’s going to be a high goal scorer in the NHL for many years in a row,” said E.J. McGuire, the NHL’s Director of Central Scouting. “There’s no better player [at his age] from the top of the circle to the goal. He has the ability to finish in any number of ways.”

Tavares, who will be 19 in September, is used to being in the spotlight. He understands it. It comes with the territory.

“It’s always been my goal to play in the NHL and I hope to play next year,” said Tavares, who would have been eligible for the 2008 draft if born five days earlier. “I’ve matured in a lot of ways. I’ve been through a lot of different things, highs and lows, and I’ve had a good junior career.”

Tavares was also an outstanding youth lacrosse player, following in the footsteps of his uncle, of the same name, who is the all-time leading scorer in the National Lacrosse League for the Buffalo Bandits. Lacrosse helped the younger John Tavares learn to spin off checks and battle in traffic.

One of Tavares’ favorite books is about Hall of Famer and current Lightning radio analyst Phil Esposito, who scored 717 career goals in the NHL.

Tavares has been working his whole life for this.

“I know not many people get to be in my shoes,” Tavares said. “I have this chance and I’m going to do everything I can to be the best I can.”

Tavares had eight goals, seven assists in six games to lead Canada to the World Junior title in January. He was named the tournament MVP as Canada beat Hedman’s Sweden in the final.

“He’s a pure goal scorer,” Hedman said. “He’s brutal to play against on the power play. He almost always scores. Whatever team gets him is going to be lucky and have a great player for years to come.”

Hedman: The next great Swede?

Hedman, now 6-6, 220 pounds, had to battle for everything he got when he was growing up.

His home town of Ornskoldsvik, population 55,000, produced Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Daniel and Henrik Sedin among other NHL stars. But perhaps his biggest competition was with his older brothers Johan and Oscar.

“During my childhood, we played a lot of hockey in the basement,” Hedman said. “I came up almost every day crying. But the next day I went down to play again and I think that has really helped me. They helped me not be satisfied with how I competed. I could always do better. Even after a great game, there’s a new game coming up. I just try to get better every day.”

Some have compared Hedman to Chris Pronger. He says he is probably closer to Jay Bouwmeister’s style.

“His combination of size and skating is unsurpassed,” McGuire said. “He’s a smart player, who has the ability to jump into the rush.”

Hedman’s favorite player is fellow countryman Nicklas Lidstrom, one of the NHL’s all-time best defenseman. Hedman said he tries to pattern his game after him. According to most analysts, and his peers, Hedman has the potential to be a Lidstrom-type player in the future.

“He’s big, and he’s very good at limiting time and space,” Tavares said. “You find sometimes that the big guys, the guys with a long reach, are easier to play against because they are not as quick. But Victor uses his stick very well and, for a guy his size, he skates and moves very well so it’s difficult to get around him.”

The advantage Hedman has over Tavares and Duchene is he has played against men the last two years for MoDo of the Swedish Elite League. His primary defense partner was former NHL player Mattias Timander, who Hedman said has taught him a lot.

Hedman won’t turn 19 until Dec. 18, but expect him to be in the NHL this fall.

“I’m really looking forward to the challenge,” Hedman said. “It’s up to me to show them I’m good enough to play in the NHL. I have high expectations for myself.”

Duchene: The two-way center

Duchene is the youngest of the three, turning 18 last January 16.

Although he scored 30 goals and 50 points in his first season in the OHL, his stock rose precipitously this season with 31 goals and 79 points in leading the Battalion to the OHL finals. He had 14 goals and 26 points in 21 playoff games.

His offensive abilities were easy to see, but Duchene’s biggest improvement was on the defensive end, making him a complete player. He has been compared to future Hall of Fame centers Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic.

“You can make Steven Stamkos comparisons,” McGuire said. “He’s got NHL skills, skating and shooting abilities. He does it all.”

Duchene, born in Peterborough, Ontario, played against Stamkos many times between ages 8 and 14, because he was playing up a year in age group. Duchene has never stopped improving.

Now, Duchene is taking it all in and he is honored by the attention.

“I don’t think any one of us is trying to overshadow the others,” said Duchene, at 5-11, 190-pounds. “I think we’re just trying to be ourselves.”

That’s what teams are looking for.

“Matt has a little less experience with the exposure,” Lawton said. “But he doesn’t give up anything in character and integrity.”

Duchene is patient, but determined.

“You’re going to be judged on what you do at the end of your career, not just the beginning,” Duchene said. “I think I’m pretty ready for the jump. There are still a few things that I don’t know about yet and have to experience to get used to. I don’t think there’s any rush. But I’m definitely going to try my best to make it this year.”

Top three picks the last 12 years

Tampa Bay; Steven Stamkos F
L.A, Kings - Drew Doughty D
Atlanta - Zach Bogosian D

Chicago - Patrick Kane F
Philadelphia - James Van Riemsdyk F
Phoenix - Kyle Turris F

St. Louis - Erik Johnson D
Pittsburgh - Jordan Staal F
Chicago - Jonathan Toews F

Pittsburgh - Sidney Crosby F
Anaheim - Bobby Ryan F
Carolina - Jack Johnson D

Washington - Alex Ovechkin F
Pittsburgh - Evgeny Malkin F
Chicago - Cam Barker D

Pittsburgh - Marc-Andre Fleury G
Carolina - Eric Staal F
Florida - Nathan Horton F

Columbus - Rick Nash F
Atlanta - Kari Lehtonen G
Florida - Jay Bouwmeester D

Atlanta - Ilya Kovalchuk F
Ottawa - Jason Spezza F
Tampa Bay - Alexander Svitov F

Islanders - Rick DiPietro G
Atlanta - Dany Heatley F
Minnesota - Marian Gaborik F

Atlanta - Patrik Stefan F
Vancouver - Daniel Sedin F
Vancouver - Henrik Sedin F

Tampa Bay - Vincent Lecavalier F
Nashville - David Legwand F
San Jose - Brad Stuart D

Boston - Joe Thornton F
San Jose - Patrick Marleau F
L.A. Kings - Olli Jokinen F
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