What we have here, folks, is a horse race.
Unlike last year, when Steven Stamkos went wire to wire as the undisputed No. 1, the race for top spot in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft is expected to be a hotly-contested battle between Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman and Oshawa General sniper John Tavares.
And if either of them should slip or stumble, Spokane defenceman Jared Cowen and/or Brampton centre Matt Duchene are seen as legitimate threats to step up and perhaps challenge for the top spot.
But in TSN's poll of 10 NHL scouts to obtain TSN's Pre-Season Top 10 for the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, it is Hedman who starts with top billing, with six first-place votes and 96 of a possible 100 points (10 points for a first-place vote descending to a one point for a 10th-place vote). Tavares is right behind the 6-foot-7 Swede, with four first-place votes and 93 voting points (Click here to see the list in detail).
''It really could go either way,'' one scout told TSN. ''So much of it will be based on performance. If Tavares plays like he did his first season (in the OHL), it's going to be very interesting. He could easily be the (No. 1) guy. If (Tavares) plays like he did in the (OHL) playoffs last spring, kids like Cowen and Duchene could go right by him. It's a big year (for Tavares).''
''It could come down to position,'' another scout said. ''If you need a forward, you take Tavares. If you need a defenceman, you take Hedman. But neither of those guys is so much better than the rest of their class that they can afford to go on their reputations. Cowen and Duchene are big-time prospects, too.''
Cowen is a 6-foot-5 defensive defenceman. Duchene is a well-built pivot just shy of six feet tall, who has elite level speed and skill. While he is perhaps not quite as prolific offensively as Stamkos, there are a lot of similarities in their game in terms of playing both sides of the puck and using speed on both offense and defence.
Cowen received 73 voting points to land in the No. 3 slot; Duchene got 68 points to hold down No. 4.
At least to start the season, the scouts' voting trends indicate a six-man group that looks to be a slight cut above the rest of the field.
Brayden Schenn of the Brandon Wheat Kings, a physical centre and the younger brother of Toronto Maple Leaf 2008 first rounder Luke Schenn, is No. 5 with 60 points, followed closely by dynamic Swedish winger Magnus Svensson-Paajarvi, who was the youngest Swede to ever play in the World Junior Championship (2008).
Those six prospects – Hedman, Tavares, Cowen, Duchene, Schenn and Svensson-Paajarvi – were the only six players to be named on each and every one of the 10 scouts' ballots for the top 10.
Which is not to suggest other prospects couldn't jump up and unseat one of those six. London Knight forward Nazem Kadri, for example, and diminutive speedster Jordan Schroeder (pronounced Shray-der) of the U.S. Under-18 program received high-end consideration from some scouts, picking up 30 and 22 points, respectively, to nail down the No. 7 and No. 8 slots.
Kadri was a member of the Kitchener Rangers but was dealt to London as part of the trade for netminder Steve Mason. Schroeder played for Team USA at the 2008 World Junior Championship.
Vancouver Giant forward Evander Kane, who played for Canada at this summer's Under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic, checks in at No. 9 with 14 points and Lac St. Louis (Que.) midget grad Louis Leblanc is 10th with 10 points.
Leblanc wowed scouts at the Hlinka tourney, playing on a top line with Duchene and 2010 draft-eligible Taylor Hall. LeBlanc will play this season for Omaha of the United States Hockey League and is scheduled to attend Harvard University in the fall of 2009.
But the fact that another 11 players, outside of TSN's consensus top 10, received at least one vote in the top 10 tells you there's bound to be a lot of movement on the draft list as the season unfolds.
U.S. Under-18 forward Jeremy Morin, Peterborough Pete forward Zack Kassian and Finnish blueliner Tommi Kivisto, who will play for Red Deer of the WHL this season were just outside the top 10, picking up seven voting points each. Other prospects who received at least one top-10 vote include Windsor Spitfire defenceman Ryan Ellis (five points), Mississauga St. Mike's Major forward Casey Cizikas and Erie Otter forward Ryan O'Reilly (four points apiece), Swedish defenceman David Rundblad (three points), Swedish forward Jacob Josefson and Brandon forward Scott Glennie (two points each) and Kingston Frontenac defenceman Taylor Doherty and Slovak forward Richard Panik (one point each).
Another five prospects received some honorable mentions from the scouts but did not receive a top-10 vote. Those players included: Swedish forward Anton Lander, U.S. Under-18 forward Kyle Palmieri, St. John's defenceman Simon Despre, Saskatoon defenceman Stefan Elliott and Regina right winger Garrett Mitchell.
Players receiving Top 10 voting points:
1. Victor Hedman, Defence (96 points)
2. John Tavares, Forward (93 points)
3. Jared Cowen, Defence (73 points)
4. Matt Duchene, Forward (68 points)
5. Brayden Schenn, Forward (60 points)
6. Magnus Svensson-Paajarvi, Forward (57 points)
7. Nazem Kadri, Forward (30 points)
8. Jordan Schroeder, Forward (22 points)
9. Evander Kane, Forward (14 points)
10. Louis Leblanc, Forward (10 points)