- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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With the 2009 draft a little over a month away, I'm wondering about the recent slight diminishment of enthusiasm about London Knights center John Tavares as the automatic, no-brainer, by-acclamation, no-need-for-discussion, obvious, wisest choice for the New York Islanders with the No. 1 overall pick.
Is this a natural product of the relentless spotlight on an 18-year-old, and the onset of a natural cynical reaction to what so long had been considered a "given"? I mean, if you stare long enough at a Van Gogh, you see flaws, don't you? If you've been told a recently released movie was better than "Casablanca" and "Slap Shot" combined, don't you tend to walk out saying, "It wasn't that good"?
Or is it the result of being willing to have an open mind, to adjust viewpoints, to even realize that maybe Tavares was either overrated to start with or has leveled off -- while others, such as Brampton center Matt Duchene, have seemed to improve daily, especially during the playoff road to the Memorial Cup.
Yes, Tavares was the MVP in the World Junior Championships in January. No, Duchene didn't make the Canadian roster. But he definitely has come on. The International Scouting Services moved Duchene up to No. 2 on its latest rankings in late April, behind only Tavares, and it can't be disputed Duchene's intelligence, leadership and two-way play was impressive in the OHL postseason.
The independent, U.S.-based Red Line Report has Victor Hedman, the huge Modo defenseman, at No. 1, and whether it's to catch attention for its daring or savvy reluctance to believe the OHL hype, or both, its unwillingness to buy into all things Tavares has been unique. Having Tavares at No. 2 or 3 certainly isn't trashing him, but it does represent a bit of general reassessment.
If Tavares and Duchene weren't both from the Ontario Hockey League, it wouldn't be out of line to at least ponder whether playing in that league, which gets the most exposure among the three leagues under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella, had caused Tavares to be overrated. He has been built up so long, relatively speaking, it arguably has taken an emperor-has-no-clothes attitude to be able to say, "Whoa, hold on here."
That OHL focus, though, is part of why I think this is the wisest NHL draft philosophy in 2009: When in doubt, draft European. Or take players either in, or on track to end up in, NCAA hockey. That's not a reflection on the relative worth of Canadian major junior, but recognition that the NHL still has an inherent bias toward major junior as the best route to take to the league.
In consideration of the NHL draft, the issue isn't whether that bias is "right" or "wrong," or even "justified" or "irrational." Rather, it's whether that bias creates self-fulfilling prophecies because of family decisions ("Hey, kid, bag college ... major junior is where you should head") and whether it leads to at least marginally better value in European-trained choices, especially as the draft continues. The Red Wings' roster is a lesson; it's not so much the number of Europeans wearing the winged wheel, it's how they were drafted relatively and surprisingly late.
I specified "European-trained" above because of the import draft and the reality that many European prospects arrive in major junior, sometimes before and sometimes after they have gone in the NHL draft.
I'm not a draftnik, but one of the fun things about working in a major-junior market, as I did for nine years in Portland, Ore., was running into scouts -- including some former players I had covered in the NHL -- at Western Hockey League games.
They would come into the press room, grab a bite to eat along with the press notes, reconfirm which players in that night's game would be eligible for the next draft ("Brendan Witt's a '75, isn't he?"), then take notes in the press box, often on third- or fourth-liners or fifth defensemen on teams with a handful or more of "veterans" who already had been drafted.
Part of the fun was either eavesdropping on the scouts' conversations with each other, or prodding the men I had covered in the NHL to tell stories. ("So, Chief," I'd say to Canucks scout Ron Delorme, "tell 'em about the time Bobby Schmautz got in the stick fight with Paul Stewart in the hallway. During the game.")
The evaluation process always fascinated me, even more so after the draft age dropped from 20 to roughly 18 as a byproduct of the admittance of four WHA franchises. (This year's crop is made up of players born in the final three and a half months of 1990 and the first eight and a half months of 1991.)
What jumped out at me while watching major junior and NCAA hockey, was that teenage players can make major bursts of progress between November and March. Or as the seasons went along, they could begin to look as if they might have leveled off at 18, and were as good as they ever were going to get.
That's why I'm a half-full glass guy when it comes to the NHL's scouting wisdom.
With the benefit of retroactive judgment, there are numerous examples of glaring draft "gaffes," but I'm actually impressed with the overall record, all things considered. It's an inherently inexact process in the first place, but the youth of the yearly crop and the differences in levels of competition involved make it even more a game of educated comparison and projection.
Some prospects are in major junior, others are in Junior A. Some are in the United States Hockey League headed for NCAA hockey the next season. Some are in U.S. high schools. Some are playing in Elite Leagues in Europe, getting limited ice time on veteran-laden rosters while still showing considerable potential.
Those kinds of evaluation challenges come into play in other sports, too, especially as the talent pools are increasingly internationalized, but it's more pronounced in hockey. The NHL's Central Scouting Bureau rankings add to the intrigue and discussion, both because of the praiseworthy transparency and it ranks the North Americans and Europeans on separate lists of skaters and goaltenders.
In many years of covering drafts, in all sports but Major League Baseball, I've learned how much bluffing is inherent in the media assessments. In football especially, print folks who have spent the rest of the season concentrating on the NFL and are only marginally aware of what a drop stop is in pass blocking, much less capable of judging its effectiveness, are spewing judgments about a tackle's worth. In hockey, similar bluffing happens, too, as the draft approaches -- and, yes, especially in the United States.
So I try to stay away from that bluffing. I also keep in mind my belief that the worst mistakes in pre-draft rankings are made when teams overreact to outside-of-season issues, whether to the interviews, poking and prodding at the NHL draft combine in Toronto, or the workouts at the NFL combine in Indianapolis and private sessions for individual teams. When teams get away from the concept of what happens during games as the virtually sole focus of the evaluation process, it's perilous.
At least the rising in Duchene's stock, for example, seems to have come because of his impressive play for the Battalion in the OHL playoffs.
There still are six weeks left to debate.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His books include "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "The Witch's Season." He can be reached at email@example.com.
9dScott Burnside and Craig Custance