Going into the 2009 World Junior Championship, much of the talk was about the individual battle between Canada center John Tavares
and Sweden defenseman Victor Hedman
. The prize most frequently mentioned was the status that came with being the first pick of the 2009 Entry Draft in Montreal in June.
Instead of giving in to the hype, both players were far more focused on their status of potential World Junior champion on Ottawa in January.
"I know everyone looks at it, but I can't really say I think about it because of the importance of this game," said Tavares. "Your mindset is on doing whatever it takes to win and to be a world champion."
"My attitude is the same," added Hedman. "My only goal is to win gold."
It was Tavares who took home all the gold Monday night. He had an assist in Canada's 5-1 victory against Sweden, and in addition to his gold medal, he was named the tournament's best forward and MVP. He led all players with 8 goals, and his 15 points were one off the tournament lead. He also was second in faceoff percentage at 65.0 percent.
Hedman finished with just 2 assists and a plus-4 rating.
Now, both players move on. Tavares back to the Ontario Hockey League -- reports surfaced during the tournament that he was on the verge of being traded from the Oshawa Generals to the London Knights -- while Hedman returns to MODO in the Swedish Elite League.
And scouts return home to assess what they saw from the projected top two 2009 draft choices during the 11-day tournament.
"They're both 17, 18 years old, and it's an under-20 tournament," Red Wings Assistant General Manger Jim Nill told NHL.com. "It's a big tournament for people to evaluate them, but you have to be careful, too. You can't take one week of your scouting and make a final decision. You have to be very careful."
Both players felt good about their performances.
"I knew I'd get my opportunities," said Tavares. "I knew I was counted on, but I never felt pressure to score a lot of goals or put up great numbers. It was just playing my game. I can say I gave it my all. I left it all out there."
Hedman said he was more proud of helping Sweden enter the gold-medal game leading the tournament in penalty killing, and finishing the tournament by allowing just 11 goals in six games, the fewest in the tournament.
"I'm playing a more defensive role this tournament," Hedman told NHL.com. "We're playing very good. You take the role you have and do what you're best at. Maybe I can create a little bit more offensively; but defensively I think this has been my best tournament so far."
Scouts who started their World Junior experience unsure of where they ranked Hedman and Tavares had no clear-cut answer when it ended.
"I've seen things in this tournament," St. Louis Blues
Director of Amateur Scouting Jarmo Kekalainen
told NHL.com. "I adjust my list after every game. The adjustment might be doing something or doing nothing, but I keep going back after every game. After every game I go back to my list and make some changes. I've made some change based on this tournament."
Scouts who wanted to see Tavares excel against the best players in his peer group saw just what they wanted.
"He proved in a lot of games he was a critical-moment player," one Eastern Conference personnel director said to NHL.com, pointing to Tavares' two goals 58 seconds apart in the memorable New Year's Eve win against the U.S. team that started Canada's escape from a 3-0 deficit. "I don't think I needed to see anything else from him. He's a good, all-round talent. He's lived up to his billing for me. He's a solid player."
"He scored so many goals that people overlook the fact that he can also make great plays," said Kekalainen. "He's got great instincts and vision and understanding of the game. I've always thought he scores goals many different ways. His focus is on the puck in front of the net. I don't think I'm spilling any secrets saying he's a great goal scorer; but he's worked hard here, been a leader on the team. Those are the things that you're looking for, the character part, the leadership part."
Despite Hedman's lack of offensive production, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound defenseman showed the strong skating and puck skills scouts expected to see.
"Hedman is supposed to be the big rock-hard solid defenseman for Sweden and he's done that," said Nill. "Everybody is looking for a 6-foot-6 defenseman than can skate and handle the puck and he's done it. He's playing against every team's best players."
"He's a young guy with a big body," San Jose Sharks
GM Doug Wilson told NHL.com. "There's a lot more growth to take place with him. He's certainly a talented player."
Tavares also was complimentary of his chief rival.
"He's a good player," he said. "You can see that with his size and his speed and the way he reads the play."
Now it's up to the scouts to read what they saw in Ottawa.
"It's just one more piece of information," said Nill. "It's got a lot of weight to it, that information, but it's not the end of the world, either."
And the common theme expressed before the tournament -- that if the team that gets the top choice needs a center it would take Tavares, and if its needs a defenseman it would take Hedman -- hasn't really changed.
"You take a look at last year, the defensemen that have come into the NHL and performed very well, and the value of a defenseman, the supply and demand of defensemen," said Wilson, "but John Tavares
is a special player. You don't see guys like him come along very often. It's a close race between the two. It depends what you're looking for."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.