- Gare Joyce
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There's no dispute about Matt Duchene being a first-round pick at the 2009 NHL draft. The only question is whether he'll be a first-hour pick.
Duchene, a forward with the Ontario Hockey League's Brampton Battalion, is a stark contrast to the much-discussed John Tavares, the London Knights center who was first projected as the No. 1 when he was a 14-year-old, if not earlier.
Ask a dozen scouts about Tavares and you'll come away without a consensus. They all respect Tavares' ability to score, but some question whether he skates well enough to be a center at the next level. Most still think his offensive talent trumps all other doubts and he's the best player available this year, but some would have their hearts in their throats if he was available when their teams' picks were rolling around.
Duchene is the exact opposite. Ask the same scouts about him, and it's unanimous. He is talented. He is industrious. He has a physical component to his game. He has great hockey sense and is a bright kid off the ice.
"With Tavares, you're projecting him as a scorer who will be asked to do other things at the next level," one NHL scout said. "Duchene might not score like Tavares in their first couple of seasons, but he might give you a better chance to win."
And Duchene has already played prominent roles for teams that have won at the top age-group level. He was the lead player on a loaded Ontario team that won the international under-17 challenge last season. Playing as an underager on the Canadian under-18 team that won the world title in Russia last spring, he was no worse than the second-best forward on the squad. The only player you'd mention in the same breath as him was his Brampton teammate Cody Hodgson, the Vancouver Canucks' first-round pick last June. Then last August, Duchene captained the Canadian team that won the Ivan Hlinka Memorial, a preseason international tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
"It was huge getting those two experiences at the under-18 tournaments," Duchene said. "My confidence level is a lot higher, and that's a direct effect of the under-18s. I'm not a confident guy by nature, so I have to learn how to draw that out, because so much of this game comes down to confidence. I thought I had a decent year in Brampton, but those international games -- especially the ones in Russia as an underager -- took my game to another level."
This junior season, Duchene not only raised his play, but also his team's. Shortly after Hodgson returned from Vancouver's training camp, the Brampton Battalion rolled through a 16-game winning streak. Through his first 41 games, Duchene has 25 goals and 37 assists, a significant bump in production from last season's numbers (30 goals and 20 assists in 64 games).
He has taken on more playmaking because he has New York Rangers draft pick Evgeny Grachev playing on his wing. The numbers are even more impressive given that he suffered a minor shoulder separation in November.
"I think I physically wore down a bit by all the hockey I played over the last 15 months, and that probably had something to do with the injury," Duchene said.
Duchene only missed a handful of games and made it out to the Canadian under-20 tryouts in December. He ended up not making the roster, and it's likely the shoulder injury was a factor in the Canadian team's decision.
If a bunch of the top draft prospects lined up, Duchene wouldn't be the first player you'd identify as a future NHL star. You might pick the 6-foot-6 Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman. You might opt for one or two others before you'd start to consider him.
Physically, Duchene might not blow you away. He's an average height, 5-foot-11 in an honest measure. Still, he's a squarely built 205 pounds. (A couple of years ago, he finished third in the discus in the Ontario provincial high school track and field championships.) He clearly puts in a lot of work on conditioning; that's not to say that he's already physically mature. He's not a kid who is 18 going on 30. He will get stronger even if he plays in the NHL at about the same weight.
Brampton drafted Duchene fifth overall in the 2007 Ontario Hockey League midget draft, but that's not an accurate reflection of his ranking. Fact is, Duchene told OHL clubs he was planning on going the NCAA route rather than play major junior. Brampton took a calculated risk in selecting him, but they had the inside track. Hodgson grew up with Duchene in Haliburton, a small town in Ontario's cottage country. After the Hodgsons moved to Toronto when Cody was in eighth grade, the family still spent their summer holidays in Haliburton, giving the friends a chance to train together every day. That bit of history sealed the deal with Duchene's parents, Vince, a real-estate agent in Haliburton, and Chris, a teacher at the town high school.
"If he had gone into the OHL draft committed to playing major junior, he would have gone first or second, not fifth," one NHL scout said.
Duchene had to change his game when he checked in with the Battalion in August 2007.
"Playing in Haliburton, I just liked to dangle, so coming to Brampton, I had to learn the defensive game," Duchene said. "I really didn't get much coaching in that when I was younger."
Duchene found it even tougher off the ice: culture shock.
"I was coming from a town of 1,500 where people know one another, and then I was going to school that was even bigger than 1,500 and had kids from all over the world," he said. "The first couple of months were tough. Hockey wasn't going great and I didn't make many friends at school, but I got through it, and Cody was a big help. Whether it was in Brampton or on the under-18 team last spring, it's been great for me to have Cody around."
Hodgson made the Canadian under-20 team, and Duchene will have to wait another winter. It seems a long shot that Duchene will pass Hedman or Tavares into one of the top two slots in the upcoming draft, but a place in the top 10 is a given, and many scouts would have him at No. 5 or better. And there's reason to believe he might make a quicker and smoother transition to the NHL than the draft's two biggest names.
It's a conundrum facing NHL scouts when they're putting together their draft lists: The scouts will rank a couple of players above Duchene, but many of them will like him more.
Gare Joyce is a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.
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