Tuesday June 23rd, 2009

After five years of issuing an NHL mock draft, here's what I've learned: these things make crapshoots look like blue chip investments. After all, it's not simply a matter of trying to guess how these 17- and 18-year-old kids will pan out. It's trying to make a read of how each individual team thinks these kids will pan out.

Since no scout is willing to reveal his team's cards, a mock comes down to a lot of jawboning and over-the-fence type speculation. Suffice to say, it's an inexact science. Still, it's a lot of fun trying to fit the pieces together and get the debate rolling until it all plays out for real on Friday night, isn't it?

So, without further ado, here's how I envision this thing:

1. New York Islanders: John Tavares, C, London (OHL)

Mystery, my butt. Garth Snow can play it as cute as he wants, but this is the name he'll call Friday night. Scouts have been on top of Tavares for so long that they've spent the last two seasons picking his game apart and he's still the Best Player Available. Does he have flaws? Sure. His skating won't make anyone forget Yvon Cournoyer, and his play away from the puck is a work in progress. But his OHL-record goal totals (72 in 2006-07, 215 for his career) prove he knows where to go in the offensive zone and what to do with the puck once he gets it, and that makes him too valuable to pass up. The Isles have given away more than 17,000 tickets for their draft party. No need for those attending to bring torches and pitchforks. The fans will get the man they want.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning: Victor Hedman, D, Modo (SEL)

Other teams will come calling, but the Bolts won't put this pick into play with Hedman there to be had. This is, after all, the team that dressed an NHL-record number of defenders (21) last season. A cross between Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Pronger, Hedman will mature into the 25-minute stud that Tampa can build its blueline around. He's physically ready to make the jump immediately, but it is more likely he'll spend at least another season in Sweden.

3. Colorado Avalanche: Matt Duchene, C, Brampton (OHL)

Some will compare him to Joe Sakic, but I prefer the thinking of a scout who likened him to Marian Hossa. Duchene's a smart, two-way player; a great skater with elite playmaking skills who's more than willing to go hard to the net. He's a magician with the puck, an elite stickhandler who'll thrill the masses while he's disorienting defenses. Some have suggested that he'll prove to be the best all-around player in this class. Colorado fans (at least, those who haven't fled the bandwagon) would settle for that.

4. Atlanta Thrashers: Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, LW, Timra (SEL)

Keep an eye on the guy that announcers, for sake of brevity, refer to as MPS. Widely considered a lock for the top-five since an impressive performance at the World Juniors, there are now whispers that he could drop several slots. Wishful thinking on the part of some scouts at the lower end of the lottery and beyond? Could be. I still think he's too intriguing a package to slip. MPS's game is all about speed. The kid is a burner, Mike Gartner-style. He blazes up and down the wings, blowing by defenders and driving hard to the net where he's capable of fooling netminders with a variety of shots. He'll be a first-line winger in this league no matter where he lands.

5. Los Angeles Kings: Brayden Schenn, C, Brandon (WHL)

Given the depth of young talent they've acquired and their need for immediate help, I'll be stunned if the Kings hold onto this pick. But whoever they deal it to likely will make the move with an eye on selecting Schenn, a hard-nosed player who approaches every shift with integrity. Like his brother Luke, Brayden is a scrapper. He's intense in his pursuit of the puck, and extremely tough when it's in his possession. He's got a bit of Mike Richards in him.

6. Phoenix Coyotes: Dmitry Kulikov, D, Drummondville (QMJHL)

Jared Cowan might have more long-term potential, but Kulikov is a safer bet. Think of him as a more physical version of Sergei Zubov. He's strong positionally and great with his stick, so he's effective in his own end, but it's his play with the puck that moves him to the top of the class. He's an offensive-minded defender who has the nerves and hockey sense to serve as the core of a puck-possession approach. After a nearly mistake-free turn in the Memorial Cup, there's reason to believe he could be ready to contribute in the NHL next season.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs: Evander Kane, C, Vancouver (WHL)

The Leafs probably had their hearts set on Schenn, but won't be disappointed to land Kane, a cruiserweight with a gift for goal scoring and a nasty competitive edge. He's not particularly big (6-1, 176) but he plays with the determination of a guy three inches taller and 40 pounds heavier. Once he hits the blueline, he's a bull going to the net. Kane likely will move to the wing in the NHL.

8. Dallas Stars: Jared Cowen, D, Spokane (WHL)

The injury-riddled Stars didn't earn many breaks last season, so maybe it's a small payback from the hockey gods that health concerns drop Cowen into their laps. At 6-5 and 220 pounds, he has the potential to become the dominant physical defenseman they've lacked since the departure of Derian Hatcher. Like Hatcher, Cowen has real leadership skills, but also brings an offensive dimension that the former captain lacked.

9. Ottawa Senators: Chris Kreider, C, Phillips Andover (USHS)

It happens every year. A team shocks the draft floor by grabbing a player far earlier than anyone expected. Could it be Kreider this year? There's been plenty of quiet buzz surrounding this big center that suggests there are several clubs hoping he drops to them later in the round, but I don't think it'll happen. Kreider is the big two-way center that every team covets. He's blessed with great acceleration, elite playmaking skills and a willingness to engage in the battle down low. A more competitive version of Jason Spezza? The Sens can only hope.

10. Edmonton Oilers: Ryan Ellis, D, Windsor (OHL)

Maybe the Oilers don't make this pick if someone other than Pat Quinn had been named coach last month. But after watching Ellis develop with Team Canada and then quarterback the Spits to the Memorial Cup championship, Quinn understands that his potential won't be limited by his frame. This kid is a winner. He simply finds a way to make it happen. He might not be the traditional shutdown defender, but Ellis is sound in his own end. And once he gets the puck, there may be no more effective player in the draft. His hockey sense is off the charts. Few can match his passing touch and no one is better at finding a lane to get his shot to the net.

11. Nashville Predators: Jordan Schroeder, C, Minnesota (WCHA)

A risky pick? Some might say so after his red flag-raising performance at the combine and a disappointing effort at the World Juniors. And even in the new NHL, 5-9 is 5-9. But Schroeder is regarded as a world-class talent, an elite playmaker with great wheels who elevates the level of those with whom he skates. is frame may be small, but it's sturdy, and that makes him tough to knock off the puck. He's also displayed obvious chemistry with Nashville's 2007 first-rounder Colin Wilson in previous international events. Maybe it's not such a risky pick after all. . .

12. Minnesota Wild: Scott Glennie, C, Brandon (WHL)

Overshadowed by linemate Schenn for much of the year, Glennie proved himself a potential top-10 pick by season's end. A dynamic player, the core of his game is speed. Defenders have to respect his ability to blow by them, and that creates space for him and his linemates in the neutral zone. His goal-scoring ability might be slightly overrated, but Glennie should develop into a solid finisher with 30-goal potential.

13. Buffalo Sabres: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, Leksand (Allsvenskan)

It's not like the Sabres are lacking in blueliners, but OEL is too good to pass on at this point. At 6-3, he's bigger than the prototypical new-age defender, but boasts the same high-end skills package. He's an elite skater with great mobility and he reads the play quickly, something that shows in his strong positioning at both ends of the ice. It wouldn't be a shock to see him taken in the top 10.

14. Florida Panthers: John Moore, D, Chicago (USHL)

The Panthers have a big hole opening on their roster with the impending departure of Jay Bouwmeester, so adding a slick offensive defenseman makes sense. That could mean David Rundblad, but Moore's name has gained a lot of heat in the past few weeks. Offensively, that's easy to understand. He's a smooth skater and savvy playmaker who makes great reads in the other team's zone. But in his own zone, he remains something of an adventure. He has the tendency to run around and his physical game doesn't match his size. Flawed? Sure . . . but the drumbeats suggest he won't drop far.

15. Anaheim Ducks: Nazem Kadri, C, London (OHL)

A bit of a slider, Kadri can be a flashy, creative contributor in the offensive zone and a diligent checker in his own end. There have been questions about his competitive fire, but some scouts feel they were answered during the OHL playoffs. Still, other nagging concerns about his size (6-0, 177) and offensive potential have allowed other prospects to scoot past him into the top 10, thus allowing the Ducks to pull off something of a steal mid-round.

16. Columbus Blue Jackets: David Rundblad, D, Skelleftea (SEL)

The Jackets may not have the league's worst power play by the time Rundblad shows up in Columbus, but he has the tools to ensure they become a more formidable opponent with the extra man long-term Rundblad worked the PP in the SEL as an underager, thanks to his slick playmaking, cannon shot and strong reads. And he's a right-handed shooter, a quality almost every team covets. Add in the fact that he should play at about 6-2, 210 and has more than a passing familiarity with his own zone, and he should become a bulwark of the Jackets' back end.

17. St. Louis Blues: Jacob Josefson, C, Djurgarden (SEL)

There's nothing in his game that particularly stands out, but that's not a bad thing. He's such a well-rounded performer that you simply roll him out every third shift and trust him to do the job at both ends of the ice. He won't dazzle anyone with his offense, and there is some frustration about him not shooting enough, but he's a smart playmaker who makes the most of his linemates. His safe play seems like an ideal fit for the growing pool of talent in St. Louis.

18. Montreal Canadiens: Zach Kassian, RW, Peterborough (OHL)

Montreal gets their armed response to Milan Lucic. Kassian is mean, has an NHL-ready body, and plays every shift with a chip on his shoulder. But, like Boston's Lucic, he's more than just a nuclear deterrent. Kassian has surprisingly deft hands in close and a cannon shot from distance. He's also a decent passer, and while he won't knock anyone out with his skill level, he's so fiercely competitive that he'll find a way to validate his ice time. Don't be surprised if someone trades up to take him earlier.

19. New York Rangers: Peter Holland, C, Guelph (OHL)

Other than "no draft," there's no more damning tag applied to a young player than "lazy." Once it's there, it's almost impossible to shake. Scouts hear it and then all it takes is a couple of soft shifts per night for it to stick. Holland's earned a rep as this year's Patrick Marleau -- a big, talented center who doesn't always compete hard -- and that's damaged his stock. So maybe he's not the centerpiece of your offense, but with his size (6-2, 185), dazzling foot speed and heavy shot, Holland can make a contribution. How much depends on his desire.

20. Calgary Flames: Landon Ferraro, RW, Red Deer (WHL)

As if the Sutters could pass on a big-bodied Western Canadian boy. Ferraro may not match the top end of some first-rounders, but his skill set and willingness to compete at both ends suggest he'll become a solid NHLer. He's fearless in the corners and down low, and as his 37 goals suggest, he's got a nose for the net.

21. Philadelphia Flyers: Nick Leddy, D, Eden Prairie (USHS)

Their biggest need is between the pipes, but whispers out of Philly suggest Paul Holmgren doesn't believe there are any stoppers worthy of spending this pick on. Does that mean they might move down? Possibly, but I suspect there's a skater they won't be able to pass on here. Kyle Palmieri is a possibility, but I think they'll go with Leddy. The winner of Minnesota's prestigious Mr. Hockey award, he's a smooth-skating offensive defender. He's small, but so explosive and so smart with the puck that his size (5-11, 180) won't impede his progress. He'll QB the power play someday.

22. Vancouver Canucks: Kyle Palmieri, RW, USNTDP

This is exactly the sort of kid the Canucks need. Palmieri's game is built on speed and hockey sense, but his tenacious play with or without the puck makes him so desirable. His compete level always is set on high and that helps earn him the space he needs to take advantage of his howitzer shot. And don't get too worked up about his lack of size (5-10, 191). Palmieri was a beast at the combine, finishing in the top three in the key strength tests.

23. New Jersey Devils: Louis Leblanc, C, Omaha (USHL)

Here's the funny thing about Leblanc. Scouts routinely praise his competitiveness, but this kid has played at least a level below his maximum for the past two seasons. Now that may be because he wanted to keep the college option open -- he's going to Harvard next year -- but at the same time, you have to wonder. Those willing to overlook his easy route will point to his soft hands and ability to create separation on the ice. He's that ideal center who's just as willing to shoot as pass, and with a projectable frame (currently 6-0, 178), he could become a second-line bulldog.

24. Washington Capitals: Carter Ashton, RiW, Lethbridge (WHL)

Everyone says they aim to take the Best Player Available, but sometimes you can't overlook a specific need. The Caps are shy of both right wings in the system and physical forwards who drive the net and score the ugly goals. Ashton's game often draws comparisons to Bill Guerin, and that's exactly the type of player their prospect pool lacks.

25. Boston Bruins: Calvin de Haan, D, Oshawa (OHL)

Ask around and it's surprising how many insiders think de Haan is destined for the Bruins. The B's could use some help on the wings, too, so they might consider Jeremy Morin or Jordan Caron, but the need to replenish their blueline stock makes de Haan the more likely selection. Scouts rave about his high panic threshold. The kid is always poised with the puck and that, combined with great on-ice vision, makes him a dangerous passer. Like Ryan Ellis, he also has an uncanny knack for getting his shot past blocks and onto the net. Seems like a simple skill, but it's one with a value that rises as defensive schemes become more successful at reducing shot opportunities from the point.

26. New York Islanders (via San Jose): Jeremy Morin, LW, USNTDP

With a safe bet in Tavares already in their pocket, the Isles can afford to reach a bit with their second first-rounder. Morin has size (6-1, 189) and smarts, but that sweet set of hands has him ranked as the best pure scorer after Tavares. Morin can, and will, shoot from anywhere, and his one-timer may be the best in the draft. So why is he available at 26? His skating leaves scouts wanting more and so does his work ethic. Both are skills that can be developed with effort and maturity, but the kid has raised memories of Jason Bonsignore . . .and that's hurt his stock.

27. Carolina Hurricanes: Jordan Caron, RW, Rimouski (QMJHL)

Jim Rutherford has stated a preference for drafting offense in the first round (too bad, because there are some very interesting blueliners available at this slot), so expect him to nab Caron. The 36-goal scorer has an NHL-ready body (6-2, 202) and is a bull on the cycle where his strength and hands make him particularly effective. He's not the greatest skater, but his work ethic and hockey sense should help him compensate.

28. Chicago Blackhawks: Zach Budish, C, Edina (USHS)

A number of safer picks could be made here (Simon Despres and Tim Erixon jump to mind), but I get a sense that someone's going to roll the dice on Budish. Why not the Hawks, a team that has several solid forward prospects but no real top-six candidates in their system? Budish missed the entire season with a torn ACL suffered while playing football, but eased most concerns with his performance at the draft combine. Scouts who watched him last year saw a power forward prospect in the Keith Tkachuk mold -- above-average marks in all the offensive categories and solid leadership skills. This could be the steal of the draft.

29. Detroit Red Wings: Dylan Olsen, D, Camrose (AJHL)

He'll never be a top pairing defender, but Olsen has the kind of innate understanding of the game that the Wings love. He's blessed with an NHL-ready body (6-2, 207) and plays the kind of smart, physical game that never goes out of style. He's reliable enough with the puck that he can play Detroit's system, but he'll be more of a boon to the penalty kill than the power play.

30. Pittsburgh Penguins: Stefan Elliott, D, Saskatoon (WHL)

Elliott is drawing plenty of comparisons to Mike Green (both are offensive defensemen who played for the Blades), but they're not really accurate. First, no one needs to leave a trail of bread crumbs for Elliott to find his own zone. At the same time, he'll never be a shooter of Green's caliber. Still, he should mature into a high-octane blueliner, thanks to his dexterity on the blades, poise with the puck and a knack for finding the seams to his teammates or straight to the net.

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