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NHL's top draft prospects mingle with veterans at Stanley Cup final @NHLdotcom

PITTSBURGH - The top prospects for the NHL draft got to mingle with the teams involved in the Stanley Cup final Tuesday and they came away impressed.

Centre John Tavares, who had a brief chat with Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby and rangy defenceman Victor Hedman, who shook hands with the seven Swedish players in the Detroit Red Wings dressing room, are expected to go first and second overall in the NHL draft on June 26 in Montreal.

That's unless centre Matt Duchene of the Brampton Battalion breaks into the top two when the 30 NHL clubs begin selecting the world's best 18-year-old players. Centre Evander Kane of the Vancouver Giants and centre Braydon Schenn of the Brandon Wheat Kings also got to tour the teams' rooms.

"I've never been to the Stanley Cup final so I'm pretty excited," said Tavares, the Oakville, Ont., native who has the same agent as Crosby in Pat Brisson. "We just had a couple of words. I know he's pretty focused right now."

The New York Islanders have first pick in the draft, followed by the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Colorado Avalanche.

The Islanders have had Tavares, Hedman and Duchene visit them for talks and to show them around Long Island. They also took a hard look at them at the NHL combine last weekend in Toronto.

So far, general manager Garth Snow has given no indication of which he will choose.

There is also a chance that the Islanders may swing a draft-day trade if they think they can get the player they want lower than first overall. They have options, as they also hold San Jose's first round pick, 26th overall, and they pick first in the second round at 31st overall.

"I talked to them several times," said Brisson, who also acts as agent for Duchene. "They met with John for a couple of days and they brought Matt in as well (the following week).

"I don't think the Islanders know for sure what they want to do yet. I expect they'll get a lot of phone calls for the first picks. Lots of teams would like to move up. But nothing is certain at this point."

The Lightning will fly Tavares, Hedman and Duchene into Tampa on Wednesday for talks.

""We're excited about all three players," said team co-owner Oren Koules.

NHL Central Scouting has Tavares ranked as the top North American skater, followed by Duchene, Kane and Schenn, while they have Hedman as the top European followed by fellow Swedes Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and Jacob Josefson.

Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said the league brought in the right players.

"From talking to other GMs - and I'm not going to tell you our list - it seems like there's a big five and then a dropoff," said Burke. "And that big five, in any order, would be Tavares, Hedman, Duchene, Kane and Schenn.

"Those are the only five names I hear. We're very open about it. We're trying to move up and we're throwing deals at teams. We just haven't had any progress yet."

The various ratings services aren't unanimous on whether Tavares or Hedman is the best prospect and Duchene has also drawn attention for how hard he has worked on his defensive game this season.

Brisson said opinion on Tavares may have faded in some eyes because he played four seasons at the same level in the Ontario Hockey League.

"That's a long time for a young star - not to get bored, but after he scored 72 goals, people expect him to score 100. So, unlike other young stars doing well who played two or three years maximum, four was a long time," he said.

"It's not clear right now (who will be drafted first). Everyone I talk to has different positions."

Tavares was a standout at the world junior championships in January, but his play in the OHL playoffs was hampered by a shoulder injury that also kept him from taking part in some of the physical drills at the combine.

He enjoyed his visit to Long Island, which included breakfast with veteran Doug Weight.

"I was a little nervous at first wondering what we were going to talk about because of our age difference, but he offered a lot of help," said the London Knights centre. "He was easy to get along with.

"They're deciding what they want to do."

Tavares said it won't break his heart if he isn't selected first overall, however.

"I'd love to go No. 1, but then I'd love to go to any NHL team," he said. "I think I can contribute in a good way and be part of a team that can hopefully win a Stanley Cup.

"If it happens, I'll be very honoured and very excited, but I'll be just as honoured and excited if it doesn't happen."

Hedman, the latest star out of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, who is often compared to Anaheim Ducks defenceman Chris Pronger, feels much the same way.

"It's going to be nice when it's finally over," said Hedman. "I've been looking forward to this for a for a long time now.

"It'll be nice just to be part of an NHL organization. I look forward to seeing which team I'll go to."

Duchene would love to jump into the top two at the draft, but he isn't losing sleep over it.

"I try not to pay much attention to it," he said. "If you do, your mind will be up and down with the rankings, so during the season you just focus on your team.

"Whatever's supposed to be will happen. There's no need to be nervous. It's sort of the start of the rest of your life, so it's a fun, exciting time."

Kane was a late cut by Canada's world junior team, then got back on it due to an injury and ended up a key player on the gold medal-winning squad.

"Getting the call back was exciting and being able to play on that kind of team in that kind of tournament really helped," he said.

Schenn's older brother Luke, a defenceman, was drafted fifth overall last June by Toronto and ended up staying with the Leafs for the NHL season. Now Braydon Schenn has a chance to match or even go higher in the draft than his brother.

"I don't know if there's any competition there," he said. "In our family, we're both proud of each other.

"It doesn't matter which goes higher. It's just a number. But I guess we might have a little side bet or something like that."

His older brother helped him prepare for the combine, but there's no telling what off-the-wall questions NHL teams may throw at players there to see how they react.

In Schenn's case, he was asked by one team who he would like most to have dinner with - Barack Obama, Maria Sharapova or Sean Avery.

Wisely, Schenn picked Obama.

"He's the most powerful man in the world and I'm sure he has a lot of cool things to discuss," he said.

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