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Who Goes #1?

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
John Tavares, Matt Duchene and Victor Hedman could all go #1 when the Islanders make their choice Friday in Montreal.

By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com

The mystery will end Friday in Montreal beginning at 7 p.m.

That’s when the staff of the Islanders will gather around a podium at the Bell Centre to announce the No. 1 overall selection in the NHL Entry Draft. The only question is whether the Islanders go with nearly everyone’s No. 1-rated prospect, center John Tavares, or pull a shocker and go in another direction?

The general consensus is that Tavares, Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman and center Matt Duchene are the top three picks. But Tavares, it seems, has been the ‘chosen one’ since he gained ‘exceptional player’ status at 14 and was selected as an underage rookie in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) priority draft.

How talented is Tavares? He broke the OHL’s 33-year-old goal scoring record with his 214th goal in March. The 6-foot centerman finished his OHL career with a record 215 goals in 247 games. He also broke Wayne Gretzky’s OHL record for goals by a 16-year-old when he scored 72 in 2006-07.

The only knock on Tavares is his skating. But it isn’t enough to scare most NHL scouts off the bandwagon.

“There’s no real secrets with JT in this draft,” said Scott Luce, the Panthers director of amateur scouting. “He’s an exceptional hockey talent. He has exceptional hockey sense and great vision. He’s never going to beat you with his blazing speed, but he beats you with his mind and hands. He sees the game better than anyone who’s going into this draft from an offensive point of view.”

The Islanders, who stand to upgrade their team greatly come this weekend with four of the top 37 picks, have not announced who they will take. GM Garth Snow seemed to indicate, however, that he would not trade the No. 1 overall pick. “I don’t envision us moving the pick,” said Snow, who had Tavares and Duchene during recent trips to Long Island spend the night at his house.

Hedman, the No. 1-ranked European prospect by Central Scouting, is a 6-6, 220-pound defenseman who, while playing against men for Modo in the Swedish Elite League, had 21 points in 43 games and was a plus-21. Hedman has lots of potential. He’s not going to put up loads of points, but he’s an excellent skater who moves the puck well and should become a No. 1 or 2 defenseman in the NHL.

“He’s a big, good-skating defenseman who can play a physical game but also contribute on offense when needed,” Luce said. “He’s got a very competitive spirit. He wants to be a solid NHL contributor sooner rather than later. He can be a top two defenseman on an NHL team.”

Then there’s Duchene. “Probably the sleeper of the top three guys,” Luce said.

Duchene, a 5-11, 200-pound center, led the OHL with six, game-winning goals while finishing third on his team (Brampton) with 31 goals, 79 points and a plus-32. Duchene stepped it up in the playoffs, finishing tied for second among all players with 14 goals and third in points with 31 in 21 games.

“He’s quick, smart...tenacious,” Luce said. “He’s got a good skill set with high, high character. He has a lot of upside in his game on projection.”

While the buzz at any draft surrounds the top picks, the Panthers go into this weekend’s draft with picks in the first (14th overall), second (44th), fifth (135) and sixth (165) rounds. Under the direction of Luce, the Panthers have walked away from the draft table in recent years with the likes of David Booth, Michael Frolik, Michal Repik, Jacob Markstrom and Nathan Horton.

Luce feels good about this weekend’s draft despite the fact he doesn’t feel there’s a great number of potential superstars.

“You have your high-end guys in the top three or four (selections),” he said. “After that you have a good quality of young forwards who could go in any order. So your top will be pretty forward dominated, with a couple of defensemen and, for sure, a couple wild cards.”

The Panthers will hold their Draft Party between 7-9 p.m., Friday at the Carolina Ale House in Weston. There’ll be food and drink specials, the Ice Dancers, Stanley, Randy Moller and Bill Lindsay, and updates from the Entry Draft.

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