Tavares has set himself apart at world juniors
The race is over.
Canada's John Tavares has clearly established himself as the top pick for the 2009 NHL entry draft and he has left Sweden's Victor Hedman in his wake, thanks to his play at the world junior championship in Ottawa.
"Based on this tournament, the two players are not equal," said Brian Burke, general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"I think he has been a clear No. 1 and this debate about him and Hedman does not make sense to me."
Before the hockey world started to focus on the junior championship, Tavares and Hedman were considered 1 and 1A for the 2009 draft in Montreal, scheduled for late June.
The buzz was that, unless something unexpected happened before the draft, one of them will be picked first and the other will go second.
But something happened at the world juniors.
Tavares a big game player
Tavares has created a definite gap between the two. He has shown that he is a big-game player.
It was Tavares who scored twice in less than a minute to help erase a three-goal deficit to the United States and his third goal — and eighth in four games — iced the 7-4 triumph.
Tavares led the tournament in scoring with eight goals and 12 points in four games prior to Saturday night's semifinal between Canada and Russia.
Hedman, an offensive defenceman, has two assists over the same period before Sweden played Slovakia in the other semifinal.
"To me, [Tavares] has ended the debate with an exclamation point," said Burke.
"[Hedman] is big but he is not overly physical. Whoever gets to draft him will get a good player and maybe a great player. But I think Tavares has finished the debate about who is the best player in this draft."
Chicago Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon agreed.
"In this tournament, eight goals is a major statement. This is not an easy tournament for 18-year-olds. ... It is a tournament to evaluate on big games," he said.
Tallon was asked whether a player can cement his draft slot, based on his performance in the world juniors.
"It can, and in our case with [Patrick] Kane, he showed us his worth [in Sweden in 2007] and that is why we took him first overall [in 2008]. If they shine in this tournament, it is a clear statement."
Leads by example
Tavares is a ho-hum type of guy who goes about his business and leads by example.
When the U.S. rattled the Canadians by jumping to a three-goal lead, Tavares told his teammates to relax, refocus and play their game. He then went out and scored two quick goals that changed the momentum of the game.
"It's just self-motivation and just being a competitive guy," Tavares said earlier this week about what drives him.
"I wanted to become better and improve and be counted on for that leadership and be a guy that can produce, or a guy you look at in the NHL like Steve Yzerman or Joe Sakic," he said.
"Guys you look at and say, 'That guy is a hockey player at all levels,' and ... that's what I want to be."
Because they play different positions — Tavares is a centre and Hedman a rangy defenceman — it's not an apples vs. apples argument when NHL scouts compare the two.
Tavares is a scorer and Hedman's job is to stop him. It's worth mentioning that when the two faced each other before Christmas, Tavares twice came down the wing but could not get past the Swede.
"I think Tavares has been the best player and the top producer everywhere he has been," said New Jersey scout David Conte.
"You hate to saddle him with things but there is that mystique, that style like Gretzky. And how do you not like a defenceman who skates like a five-foot-eight guy when he is six-foot-five?
Edmonton Oilers assistant GM Kevin Pendergast said there is a lot to like about both players.
Skating has improved
"They both excel at the game. They both have terrific hockey sense, great skill and [are] great skaters. That was one part of the game that Tavares has picked up on, his skating.
"They each have everything you would want in a player. One will play 28 minutes a night for you and the other guy will play in every situation."
Pendergast is impressed by how Tavares has handled the spotlight.
"There is a lot of pressure on him and you have to give him a lot of credit. He is taking the bull by the horns at this point and he is showing everybody what kind of player he can be.
"I think he will be one of those players like [Sidney] Crosby. He wants the pressure."
On Hedman, he said: "He is one of those guys who gives the impression he could play 60 minutes."
In the end, you have to think Tavares will get the nod as the top pick. But you never know.
"It is the age-old argument. Tell me the team that is drafting and show me what they have and do not have," said Nashville GM David Poile.
"You have heard people say, 'Build up the middle' and you have other people say, 'Build from the back out.' Who has the top pick?"
That's months away from being decided.