Friday December 5th, 2008

Maybe it was this week's roster announcements for the World Junior Championship. Maybe it was fans looking for the silver lining in their team's early struggles. Or maybe it was a concerted plot by a group of die-hard prospecting nerds. Whatever the case, my inbox was jammed with letters regarding next summer's NHL draft.

"Do you think the Stars would be better served drafting John Tavares or Victor Hedman?" asked John McFadden, Allen, TX.

"What kind of pro player will Jordan Schroeder be?" wondered L. McManamin of Minnesota.

And then there was Fadi Mansoor, who pondered what effect the drafting of Nazim Kadri would have on the popularity of hockey in Lebanon.

Seriously. I get mail like that all the time.

Clearly you guys are thinking draft, and since I'm all for giving you what you want, we've got our first 2009 mock draft.

Too early? Not all all. Teams have been mocking drafts since last summer. Sure, the desirability of certain players is sure to fluctuate, but this will give you a good idea of who is most likely to be on the radar when the first round goes down in Montreal on June 25.

Just to make things interesting, I've included a draft order based on the current standings as of Friday morning. Obviously, that order and much else will change continually as the season progresses, so team needs and drafting tendencies weren't taken into consideration. But if the draft were to be held today, this is what it might look like:

Victor Hedman, D, Modo (Sweden Jrs)

The 6-7, 225-pound Hedman has done nothing since his breakthrough performance at last year's WJC to suggestthat he shouldn't be the first player selected. A recent shoulder injury may hamper him slightly at this year's tournament, but it shouldn't impact his standing. Picture a cross between Chris Pronger's physical style and Nick Lidstrom's calm puck movement and you have an idea of what Hedman brings to the table.

John Tavares, C, Oshawa Generals

It's the age-old story of the Canadian phenom: Tavares has been in the spotlight so long that scouts now spend all their time picking apart his flaws rather than celebrating his potential. Someone's going to get an elite scorer with this pick, but Tavares needs a strong season to maintain this draft position.

Jared Cowen, D, Spokane Chiefs

Another mammoth blueliner (6-5, 220), Cowen lacks the overtly physical element that defines Hedman's game. Still, he'll be a difference-maker in his own zone and a lock for someone's top pairing. His positioning and reads are second to none in the draft.

Matt Duchene, C, Brampton Battalion

Duchene uses his superb speed to make an impact at both ends. Scouts love his slick hands, hockey sense and two-way commitment, and they slot him in as a No. 1 center.

Magnus Svensson-Paajarvi. LW, Timra (Sweden)

Already a regular in the Elitserien at 17, he's drawing comparisons to Markus Naslund. "An elite playmaker," said one scout. "Has that gift of making those around him better."

Jordan Schroeder, RW, University of Minnesota

The only NCAA player likely to be selected in the first three rounds, Schroeder is a dynamic, if undersized (5-8, 168), scoring threat. He'll be the offensive centerpiece for the Americans at the WJC.

Evander Kane, C, Vancouver Giants

The natural playmaker has become a more accomplished finisher this season. "He has more confidence in his shot and he's going to the net more consistently," one scout said.

Brayden Schenn, C, Brandon Wheat Kings

The reigning WHL Rookie of the Year lacks the size and nastiness of older brother Luke, but boasts enough grit and touch to become a solid second line center. Brian Burke has a thing for brother acts . . .

Nazem Kadri, C, London Knights

A smallish forward of Lebanese heritage (he was born in London, Ont.), Kadri makes up for his lack of size (6-0, 177) with dazzling puck skills and high-end foot speed. He can play all three forward positions.

Taylor Doherty, D, Kingston Frontenacs

At 6-8 and 225 pounds, Doherty is a Chara-size slab of defensive granite. He plays up to his size, too. He's a physical pounder who's not afraid to drop the mitts, and he's a surprisingly strong skater. His skills are still raw, though, making him the draft's most intriguing project.

Dmitry Kulikov, D, Drummondville Voltigeurs

Kulikov is a marvelously skilled defender, capable of setting the tone at both ends of the rink. Though his offense and hockey sense are what get him noticed, he's begun to add a physical element to his game that could encourage some team to take an earlier leap than his current ranking suggests.

Jeremy Morin, C, US U-18 National Team Development Program

The leading scorer for the NTDP with 15 goals in 20 games, Morin is a pure sniper. "He has the best hands in the draft," said our scout. "He can beat you from anywhere on the ice." Only his skating will keep him out of the top 10.

Zack Kassian, RW, Peterborough Petes

Looking for the next Milan Lucic? The 6-3, 215-pound Kassian finishes his checks, takes on all challengers, fires up his teammates . . . and he's the team's second-leading scorer.

Ryan Ellis, D, Windsor Spitfires

Some have concerns about his size (5-10, 175), others his defensive reads. But every team would love to employ Ellis and his offensive savvy on their blueline. He'll be an elite power play quarterback.

Louis Leblanc, C, Omaha Lancers

Leblanc is expected to attend Harvard (majoring in economics) next year, but chances are he won't need the education safety net. His blazing speed and soft hands more than compensate for his undersized frame (6-1, 176).

Peter Holland, C, Guelph Storm

This kid is going to impress a lot of people before the season's out. Every aspect of his game is improving, from his size to his speed to his work ethic. The top 10 isn't out of the question.

Simon Despres, D, Saint John Sea Dogs

The first overall pick in the 2007 QMJHL priority draft, Despres has seen his hype muted while playing behind a stacked blueline in Saint John. That may change as the season wears on. Scouts love his pro size (6-3, 208), skating, responsible defensive play and hints of an emerging offensive game.

Richard Panik, C, Trinec (Slovakia)

Already a vet of the top Slovakian league at 17, Panik established his credentials with a breakout performance at last summer's U-18 tournament. He's projected as the top power forward prospect.

Stefan Elliott, D, Saskatoon Blades

"I see him as a poor man's Mike Green," our scout said. "He has a lot of work to do in his own end . . . [but] he makes great reads with the puck. He excels at slowing the game down and making the right play in the offensive zone."

Jimmy Bubnick, RW, Kamloops Blazers

Bubnick promises a solid two-way game and a great shot that suggests a strong offensive upside.

Drew Shore, RW, US U-18 NTDP

Scouts say his body (6-2, 185) projects to power forward size. Shore is good along the boards, fearless going to the net, and has great hands in tight.

Tomas Vincour, RW, Edmonton Oil Kings

The first overall pick in the 2007 CHL Import Draft started the season slowly, but has been asserting himself as an offensive force over the last month. The effort and grit that eluded him earlier are becoming a consistent part of his game.

Jacob Josefson, C, Djurgarden (Sweden)

Another underager who's earning his keep in the Elitserien, Josefson is said to be a strong, two-way player who has the chance to become a top-six forward.

Tommi Kivisto, D, Red Deer Rebels

There's nothing flashy about his game, and nothing he does exceptionally well. But Kivisto is well-rounded and seen as a safe pick. Scouts are impressed that the Finn came to North America to develop his game.

Landon Ferraro, RW, Red Deer Rebels

The son of Chicken Parm resembles Brandon Sutter, another second generation NHLer. Both are blessed with pro skill sets, but it's the intangibles, like leadership and competitive drive, that set them apart.

Mike Lee, G, Fargo Force

Other goalies are more highly-rated, but the case for using a first round selection on Lee is building momentum. He was a big part of the American gold medal win at the World Junior A Championship, but looks just as strong playing behind a weak Fargo team in the USHL.

Ryan O'Reilly, C, Erie Otters

An intense competitor, O'Reilly never takes a shift off. His propensity for redlining it sometimes works against him, but also fuels his desire to improve every aspect of his game. He'll be an elite checking line center.

David Rundblad, D, Skelleftea (Sweden)

He's struggled with the adjustment to the men's league, but showed enough in juniors to suggest that he'll be a solid top-four option. His appearance at the WJC could have a tremendous impact on his selection.

Olivier Roy, G, Cape Breton Eagles

Roy (no relation to the famous netminder of the same last name) has that presence about him that helps carry a flagging team. He controls his rebounds well and is especially strong down low.

(from San Jose via Tampa Bay)

Scott Glennie, C, Brandon Wheat Kings

Brayden Schenn's sometime wingman is a more dangerous sniper, but lacks the all-around polish that makes Schenn a sure-fire top-10 pick.

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