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Hedman-Tavares another battle worth watching

by Adam Kimelman
While the main focus at the 2009 World Junior Championship will be the battle for the gold medal, an interesting subplot will be playing out for another top spot.

The 2009 Entry Draft is six months away, but a major battle will be waged during the WJC between John Tavares and Victor Hedman to see who is worthy of the No. 1 pick.

Tavares, a 6-foot, 200-pound center, is an elite playmaker and scorer. He's tied for the Ontario Hockey League lead with 25 goals, and he's second with 52 points.

"Power forward, great hands, offensive capability," NHL Central Scouting Director E.J. McGuire said. "He's got star potential because of his scoring ability. There's no reason to think he can't score in the NHL at the rate or in the manner that he's scored in three years of junior hockey."

"All Tavares does is score goals, and I say that in a positive way," said an Eastern Conference scout who requested anonymity. "No matter what the situation. He's one of the more dangerous snipers to come along in junior hockey in a long time. At worse, he'll turn out to be similar to a Jason Spezza."

McGuire compared Tavares, who is nearing the all-time OHL record for goals, to a sniper akin to Brendan Shanahan. Other scouts, though, raved about Tavares' vision and hockey sense.

"The way he sees the ice and passes the puck through traffic, draw the comparison to whoever you want, but when you watched Wayne Gretzky, if you put your stick on the ice, you'd get the puck on your stick at some point," said Central Scouting's Chris Edwards. "John is phenomenal at getting the puck through traffic to his linemates, getting to openings. The way he reads the play and can get to where he figures the rebounds will be and bangs in the rebound. He's a real smart player."

On the other side of the puck is Hedman, a mountainous 6-6, 220-pound defenseman whose strongest skill might be his skating. Just 18, he has 10 points in 25 games with MODO in the Swedish Elite League, where he faces NHL-caliber competition on a nightly basis.

"Hedman is a big, strapping kid with an offensive upside," McGuire said. "Rock-solid … a defenseman around which teams build a franchise."

Scouts have compared Hedman to a wide range of NHL stars, from Hockey Hall of Famer Borje Salming to current All-Stars like Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Pronger.

"I feel Hedman, at worst, will be like a Jay Bouwmeester, because he'll play a ton of minutes," said the Eastern scout.

"For being that young, he's very mature and he's big, but moves like a smaller guy," said Goran Stubb, NHL director of European scouting. "Very mobile, and his puck sense is excellent. Hedman is dominating the game, playing on the first defense pair on MODO. He's playing around 20 minutes per game."

Neither player, though, is a finished product. The knocks on Tavares are his skating and defensive awareness, but neither is so glaring as to keep him from projecting into a top-line NHL center.

"Is he the best skater in the OHL? Maybe not," McGuire said. "He is one of the best in the OHL, right now, skating-wise. Yet is that the most significant or visible part of his game? No, it's his hands and his offensive ability. There are a lot of teams that have fancy skaters that wish ugly skaters would score a goal for them, and he's not an ugly skater."

For Hedman, it's decision-making with the puck. Also, the fact that he missed a few weeks in earlier in the season with a shoulder injury was a red flag.

"Just decision making," McGuire said. "He might be going north and the puck gets turned over, he might get caught being a bit offensive. … If the puck is poked away or turned over quickly, he doesn’t get back in time. But he's a good enough skater that if it's not the best World Junior team, he can get away with it."

Tavares and Hedman went head-to-head twice at the 2008 WJC, but the battle was as even as their current rankings. In Sweden's 4-3 preliminary-round upset of Canada, Tavares had two shots, while Hedman had just one. In the rematch in the gold-medal game, Tavares had just one shot, while Hedman had a contest he'd rather forget -- one shot, two penalty minutes, and he was on the ice for all three of Canada's goals in a 3-2 win for the Canadians.

The only way Tavares and Hedman will meet on the ice this year is in the medal round, as Canada and Sweden are in different groups. Still, scouts will be watching, and how each plays at a high-pressure tournament against their peers will go a long way in the minds of scouts.

"This World Juniors stage is so telling and so revealing," McGuire said. "John Tavares against the Peterborough Petes is one thing. But John Tavares against an all-star team from Russia against players his own age, that's different."

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