The Islanders find themselves with an enviable conundrum at this yearís Entry Draft in Montreal. On June 26, they will announce who they have decided to draft with the #1 overall pick. They have a very difficult decision to make, in one sense: do they draft high-scoring Canadian forward John Tavares, or mammoth-sized yet highly-skilled Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman? Itís a difficult decision in the sense that these are two very different players, either of which should become a franchise player to the team that drafts him. On the other hand, that makes it an easy decision in another sense: whichever one you go with, you should end up with an outstanding, difference-making player.
Iím not sure thereís ever been as much debate about who should go first overall in the Entry Draft. Tavares had previously been the consensus pick, but heís been in the spotlight for so long that over time Hedman has caught up to him, if not overtaken him in the minds of many observers. Finally, this June, someone will have to make a decision: will it be Tavares, or will it be Hedman?
John Tavares has been in the public eye for a very long time. Heís been considered a top NHL draft prospect since he first played in the OHL in 2005/06. It seems so long ago now. That year he scored 45 goals, in what was his age-14 season. Bar in mind his birthday is September 20, meaning he was 5 days away from this being his age-15 season. A 17-year-old who put up his numbers would be draft-worthy, and Tavares had three more seasons before he was first eligible. The hockey world was abuzz about his seemingly limitless potential.
In his age-15 season (5 days away from being his age-16 season), he led the OHL with 72 goals and finished second with 134 points, solidifying his position as the next great scorer. He seemed to take a small step backward in 2007/08, when he did not improve on his points-per-game average, which stayed at exactly two. Players his age should be making progress every year, improving their numbers. In fact, the OHL in 2007/08 featured 8% fewer goals per game than the year before, so that explains at least a part of this apparent stall; he was playing in a lower-scoring league.
This past season, despite leading the OHL in goals and points, his points-per-game dropped again, and this cannot be explained by league-wide trends. On the other hand, adjusting for league scoring levels his goals-per-game was the highest of his major junior career.
Is it a concern that his per-game numbers have not seen the sharp increase that most players of his age achieve? I canít really say. For one thing, much of the apparent improvement that most players show results more from a change in role than a change in ability; that is, they get more power-play time as they get older and more experienced. Since power-play time is very important for raw scoring numbers, simply increasing a playerís ice time in such situations can have a significant impact on his numbers. Tavares started out getting significant time with the man advantage, and as such we would expect his scoring to be flatter over his career than most players. Also, his age-17 scoring numbers are still incredibly good. Could you argue that argue that they are less good than they appear, because his age-15 and age-16 numbers were even better? I donít think so.
In my last column I noted that John Tavaresís career is difficult to project, because he does not have any truly comparable players. This is true of nearly all great players. Truly great players are unique. This makes it difficult to say whether Tavaresí small decline in production is actually something to worry about. Heís a unique talent, and we should expect him to post unique numbers.
Victor Hedman couldnít be more different from Tavares if he tried. He plays a different position, speaks a different language, and has a very different physique. The ties that bind them together: they both shoot left (I guess you could count that), and scouts have been drooling over them for years, and not without reason.
Hedmanís career has been unique thus far. He took a regular shift as a defenseman for MoDo in the Swedish Elite League (SEL) in 2007-08, which was his age-16 season. Now, itís very rare for such a young player to even get a sniff at the highest level in Sweden, much less regular playing time. He managed four points in 39 games, which may not seem like much, but when you consider his age itís truly impressive. The SEL is Swedenís top league, and in populated by 20-something and 30-something players. Itís not easy to break into the lineup when youíre so young.
This season, his age-17 season, Hedman scored seven goals and 14 assists for 21 points in 43 games for MoDo. Again, a .49 points-per-game average may not seem like a big deal, but if youíre familiar with SEL statistics for young players, youíll realize that this is unprecedented. The only age-17 season I could find for a defenseman that was even close to this was Tomas Jonssonís 1977-78 campaign (also for MoDo), when he scored 16 points in 36 games (0.44 per-game). Now, Jonsson was a very good player at the NHL and SEL level, but heís hardly an all-time talent. Fortunately for Hedman, Jonssonís season is really not comparable at all. The scoring environment in the SEL in 1977-78 was 4.01 goals per team-game. This year it was 2.70 goals per team-game. The seasons arenít really comparable, since goal-scoring was 50% more frequent in Jonssonís time, making Hedmanís numbers much more impressive. Had Jonssonís season been last year, his points-per-game would have been about 0.30, more than 30% behind Hedman.
Even the man most people compare Hedman to, Nicklas Lidstrom, was not playing in the SEL in his age-17 season. He rode the bench for Vasteras in his age-18 season before finally cracking the lineup in 1990-91, recording 16 points in 39 games. Despite his lesser scoring stats, Lidstrom remains a very good comparable to Hedman, probably the best youíll find given that Hedman is unique.
Needless to say, if you can get another Nicklas Lidstrom in the draft, youíd best take him. Six-time Norris Trophy winners donít grow on trees. It seems likely that Hedman can match Lidstromís career, if not surpass it. He is larger and more physical than Lidstrom, and seems to have superior offensive skills as well. Thatís quite an intimidating package.
When you have two top-flight prospects like this, how do you decide which one is the better draft choice? One criterion that is often suggested as a tie-breaker between these players is the teamís positional need. For instance, the Islanders are very weak on defense, but have some decent forward prospects. As such perhaps they should go with Hedman to shore up their blueline. There may be some merit to this argument, but Iím not sure. Hedman will not be in his prime for at least five years, and so much can change for a team over that time. The Islesí forward prospects could crap out, while the team lands some good defensemen on the free-agent market, and suddenly their forward line is the weak point. I donít think you should pay much attention to your ďorganizational needsĒ, as theyíre often called. Generally speaking, you should draft the best player available. Itís not like youíll only ever need one defenseman or forward; there are many spots on a teamís roster to fill.
So who would I pick, were I in a position to make such a decision? Honestly, I might flip a coin. Both players are exceptional talents, and my system of statistical analysis is not nearly refined enough to make the choice using it. Perhaps Tavaresí lack of significant statistical improvement should put Hedman ahead; I'm not sure. Any way you look at it, the Islanders are going to get a great player with their #1 pick, and Tampa Bay should get the other at #2, without having to agonize over the decision. If I were contrarian I might suggest that Ryan Ellis deserves to be in the discussion here as well, though again my analysis isnít sophisticated enough yet to make such a claim. Regardless, in their primes Hedman should be the face of defense in the NHL, and Tavares should be the face of offense. Itís going to be interesting to see who comes out on top.