Duel for "No.1" means little

Tavares set to be drafted first overall, but what’s the big deal?

12.01.2009
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John Tavares, left, might be the better player than Victor Hedman in the draft, but will he enjoy the better NHL career? Photos: IIHF/HHoF

Now that perhaps the greatest World U20 Championship is in the books, one irrefutable fact has emerged from the event. John Tavares clearly played better than Sweden’s Victor Hedman and now looks to be a shoe-in to be selected first overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

The follow-up is – who cares?

Although the “showdown” between the two top-rated players provided a small measure of intrigue and gave fans one more angle from which to appreciate to the tournament, the fact is that the first overall selection has meant precious little since the draft became an open affair in 1969. Indeed, one could easily argue being selected first overall is a precursor to being a mediocre, if not altogether failed, NHLer. If most players had any say in the matter, they’d probably decline the opportunity.

To be sure, the first overall position is a marquee one, and each year this player is hailed as a “saviour” for whichever among the worst teams in the league has the chance to select him. Yet you can count on one hand the number of times the top selection has gone on to play with saviour-like ability.

In this context, there is no better example than 1984 when Mario Lemieux was chosen first by Pittsburgh. Not only did he lead the team to two straight Stanley Cup wins in 1990 and 1991, he played his whole career with the Pens and went on to become team owner. He is the uber-example of a first-round draft choice – and the only one of his kind.

There have been several Hall of Famers who were chosen number one, starting with Gilbert Perreault in 1970, Guy Lafleur in ’71, and Denis Potvin in ’73. Dale Hawerchuk went in 1981, and Mike Modano (a future Hall of Famer) was chosen in 1988. Mats Sundin (also Hall-bound) was chosen a year later.

But the list of failed first overall choices is much longer – Billy Harris, Greg Joly, Rick Green in the early days; Doug Wickenheiser, Gord Kluzak, and Brian Lawton in the 1980s; Roman Hamrlik, Alexandre Daigle, and Patrik Stefan more recently. (Although never reaching stardom, Hamrlik has played 15 seasons and more than 1000 games in the NHL.)

Drafting in the early days was much easier, and for one reason only. Scouts were looking at 20-year-olds, not 18-year-olds, and those extra two years of development means the world to a player’s career. It wasn’t until 1979, when the four WHA teams merged with the NHL, that the draft moved to 19-year-olds and a year later to 18-year-olds.

The ultimate goal of any team is to win the Stanley Cup, and again few first-overall draft choices have done this with their drafted teams. Since 1969, eight teams have had the first overall draft choice three times, the most. Quebec had three in a row: Sundin in 1989, Owen Nolan a year later, and Eric Lindros the next year. Yet none of these players were around in 1996 when the franchise, relocated to Colorado, won the Cup.

Too, Ottawa had three in four years, starting with Daigle in 1993 and continuing with Bryan Berard (1995) and Chris Phillips (1996), but only Phillips was around when the team went to the finals in 2007 before losing to Anaheim.

At the other end of the drafting spectrum is the incredible number of low draft choices who go on to have superb NHL careers. Just look at the Detroit lineup, chock full of low choices who are stars and Stanley Cup champions today. Many people would say Nicklas Lidström is the best defenceman of our time, yet back in 1989 he was selected 53rd overall by Detroit. In 1998, Pavel Datsyuk was selected 171st overall; Henrik Zetterberg 210th overall in 1999; and, Tomas Holmstrom 257th in 1994.

One interesting goaltender comparison springs to mind. Finland’s Kari Lehtonen was drafted 2nd overall by Atlanta in the 2002 draft. Two years earlier, the New York Rangers selected Swede Henrik Lindqvist in the 7th round – 205th overall – at a point during the draft when almost everyone already had “left the building”. Who is the hotter of the two goalies today?

Players develop at different speeds, and every year at the U20 we see stars today who go on to great things professionally – and others who fade quickly. Canada’s heroes this year included Jordan Eberle with his great tying goal against the Russians; Tavares; goalie Dustin Tokarski; determined Angelo Esposito. All were huge reasons Canada won gold, but not all will likely have amazing NHL careers.

There is enormous pressure and expectation that comes with being selected first overall. Draft day is the fun day, but then that same 18-year-old must go to training camp of one of the worst teams in the league where the media question him daily about making the team, being a star, helping the team go from 30th place to 16th place or better. Not every player can handle this.

For many players, being drafted in the middle of the pack and being left alone for a few years to develop quietly is a far greater recipe for success. It isn’t as glamorous on draft day in a packed NHL arena, but five years later, the rewards make that anonymity worthwhile.

So Tavares will go first overall and Hedman second, third, maybe even lower. Tavares so far has shown to be a special player, but five years from now, who knows how much better he’ll be than Hedman.

Recall the 1997 draft. Joe Thornton was the first selection and Sergei Samsonov 8th. Samsonov won the Calder Trophy for his rookie season and Thornton had three goals and seven points. Today, no GM in his right mind would mention Thornton in the same breath as the disappointing Samsonov.

There are hundreds such examples pro and con. The bottom line is, the best thing to happen to Victor Hedman might be that he likely will NOT be drafted first overall. Let Tavares have the pressure. Let’s see how he does.

ANDREW PODNIEKS


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