The last time Kyle Woodlief can recall an NHL Entry Draft with this level of intrigue at the top of the board was 2003, when Marc-Andre Fleury went to the Pittsburgh Penguins at No. 1 followed by Eric Staal (Carolina Hurricanes) and Nathan Horton (Florida Panthers).
"In 2003, the first eight guys on our board were all fairly closely ranked. We had Fleury No. 1 and he went No. 1, but he wasn't a lock at any point," said Woodlief, a former Nashville Predators scout who publishes Red Line Report, an independent scouting newsletter.
Is John Tavares, the London center, a lock? It's the question 20,000 New York Islanders fans will be asking when they file into the team's draft party on Friday night. It's also the question we asked Woodlief during our wide-ranging conversation about the 2009 Draft.
What's so good about Tavares? "He's terrific from the circles in; a natural sniper. He's going to score an [expletive] load of goals at the NHL level," said Woodlief. "He's got just a major league shot and great wrists, with a quick release. He's going to be a goal scorer, and he's always been a goal scorer."
Does he have the temperament to handle being a No. 1 overall pick and, potentially, a franchise savior? "I think he can handle that aspect of it. But personally, I'm not crazy about his attitude," said Woodlief.
"I don't think guys that are 17 years old, who have an entourage of 20 people around him, [it's] a little ridiculous. He's got a self-confidence that he can handle being the No. 1 overall guy. But I don't think he should be the No. 1 overall guy."
That No. 1 overall guy, Woodlief strongly suggests, should be defenseman Victor Hedman, rated the best European-born skater by Central Scouting.
"It's the rarest commodity to find in the NHL these days. The list of guys that are 6-foot-6 with world-class offensive skills and skating ability back on the blue line ... you've got Chara and Pronger and maybe Jay Bouwmeester. But that's the end of the list," said Woodlief.
But is a preference for Hedman born out of a preference for the proper way to build a winner? In other words, the notion that a foundational defenseman is more important than a foundational forward?
"You have to look at what types of players are easier to get," he said. "The toughest element to find is a 6-foot-6 defenseman who is going to play 30 minutes every night, quarterback your power play and skate like a 6 foot 180-pounder."
Matt Duchene is of course the third standout prospect in the mix at the top; the Brampton center whose stock has skyrocketed and who some feel should surpass Tavares as the draft's top forward. Woodlief said Red Line Report has him ranked higher than Tavares.
"He was a guy who came into the OHL last year as an all-offensive type of guy. He's really benefitted playing two years under Stan Butler's defensive system up in Brampton. He really took it to heart, and he's become really good in his own end," said Woodlief. "He's a much better skater than Tavares, and much better defensively."
Like every center his size, Duchene has earned comparisons to players like Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic.
"I see more with Sakic than I do with Yzerman, because people don't remember how good Steve Yzerman was," Woodlief said with a laugh. "He was a 60-goal, 150-point man."
Duchene could be better on faceoffs, and Woodlief wishes he had better vision on the ice. He also sees Duchene as a player who could use a little seasoning at another level before making the jump to the NHL, but that progression depends on the needs of the team that takes him.
That said, Hedman and Duchene have both been eclipsed by the hype for Tavares ... even though Woodlief believes Tavares isn't the same caliber of pre-draft star we've seen in the last decade.
"Tavares is nowhere near the same category as Ovechkin or Malkin or even Eric Staal back in 2003. He's not even close to Eric Staal's league," he said.
So where does the hype come from? Is it our insatiable urge to be king-makers with high profile prospects?
"I guess," Woodlief said. "The fact is that he's close to Toronto, and it all stems from Toronto."
Other thoughts from the former scout on this year's draft class:
• Compared to last season's talent pool ... well, there's no comparison.
"It's certainly better than last year's crop. I look at the players we have ranked from the mid-20s to the early 40s, and comparing them to the same block of guys in last year's rankings I like this year's group quite a bit more," he said.
• After the top three picks come the Atlanta Thrashers at No. 4, and the thought is that it'll be power forward Evander Kane (Vancouver) going to Blueland. Woodlief expressed some doubt after hearing Rick Dudley was added to the Thrashers brain-trust, wondering what if any impact that would have.
He's high on Kane, a converted center who plays left wing. "He's more of a sniper than a playmaker. I don't think he would have been a very good center at the NHL level," said Woodlief.
He's also super-high on center Brayden Schenn from Brandon: "He's such a complete player. Duchene has a much better goal-scoring touch around the net and near the circles. I think Schenn's offensive abilities are underrated; he's probably a little bit better playmaker than Duchene is, and so much better competing every shift than a guy like Tavares."
• One of the most memorable names in the draft is that of Swedish left winger Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, whom Woodlief believes is one of the most NHL-ready prospects. "Easily the best pure skater in the draft. Great lateral agility, a balanced stride. Very tough to knock him off the puck. He's physically a man already, and he's been playing against 30-year-old men in the Swedish Elite League all season."
His problem? Finishing his chances. Which naturally leads one to wonder if this could be an enigma waiting to happen.
• Two defenseman to watch in the first round, with completely different styles: Ryan Ellis, the offensive defenseman from the Windsor Spitfires; and Jared Cowen, one of the draft's top defensive defenseman. Ellis earned respect for his play on the Spits and on Team Canada in world juniors, where he was the youngest defenseman to play for Canada since Jay Bouwmeester in 2001. Cowen, who is 6-foot-5 and 220, had his season cut short due to a knee injury at the end of January. Woodlief would still like to see more offense from him. "We didn't really show what we were looking for," he said. "A career year for him might be 35, 40 points."
• The goalies in this season's draft ... well, let's just say they aren't blue-chippers.
• Finally, we asked the man behind the Red Line Report his thoughts on who might be the draft's biggest mover and biggest dropper in the first round.
His dropper: Center Nazem Kadri of London, whom he feels could slip during the first round.
His mover: Louis Leblanc, who sounds like a Puck Daddy approved draftee if there ever was one. "He's got world class speed and puck-handling ability, can put the puck in the net and just has a nasty, chippy, feisty edge to his game," said Woodlief.