Going into this season, opinion among NHL scouts was divided.
Some liked forward John Tavares of the Ontario Hockey League as the first overall pick for the 2009 NHL draft; others preferred Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman. In fact, it's likely the majority saw Hedman as the probable No. 1 based on his performance at the 2008 world under-20 championship in the Czech Republic.
Hedman, who is 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, had been the silver-medal-winning Swedes' best blueliner, maybe their best player and arguably the most promising-looking prospect in the whole tournament. On the flip side, Tavares, a talented scorer, saw spot duty for Canada rather than a regular shift.
The rest of the season, Hedman was the youngest player taking a regular shift against former NHLers and emerging talents in the Swedish pro league, and he even made an appearance playing for the men's national team. Meanwhile, Tavares went back to the Ontario junior ranks, posted numbers that suffered by comparison with his previous season and couldn't lift an Oshawa Generals team that faded disappointingly in the playoffs.
Now, though, there seems to be something nearing consensus in the scouting community. Tavares appears to have locked up the No. 1 spot -- after being the difference-maker, the most explosive scorer and clutch performer, for a Canadian team that successfully defended its world junior championship in Ottawa in January -- and Hedman has dropped to a clear second choice.
Hedman's season started to go a little sideways in early December. He suffered a shoulder injury in a Swedish elite league game with his club team, MODO. Although some scouts thought he might have been playing through a lingering hurt going into the world junior tournament, Hedman said it had no impact on his game.
"We just wanted to play it safe," Hedman said. "I had this [shoulder] injury before. I knew what it was like. I played in four games before coming over. We wanted to make sure that I was 100 percent."
Hedman and the Swedish team arrived in Toronto before Christmas for exhibition games before the under-20s, and it seemed as if at least a couple of percentage points were knocked off his game in a tuneup game against Canada. Half a minute after the opening faceoff, Tavares, hardly considered a physical player, had taken a good run at Hedman with his first touch of the puck. Then, Dana Tyrell of the Prince George Cougars caught Hedman with his head down, knocking him into the boards. Obviously, the Canadian team's scouting report on Hedman had made note of his shoulder injury, underlined with exclamation marks beside it.
While the Canadian team ran out to a comfortable lead, the Swedes' draft star struggled. By the third period, it seemed as though his head cleared and he found his legs, even scoring an impressive goal amid his last couple of shifts. Still, Canada won and it was Tavares' night.
Hedman said all the right things going into the under-20s and downplayed the draft and any suggestions he was going into a showdown with Tavares.
"Winning is the only thing that is important, so I don't feel any special pressure about the draft or being the first pick," Hedman said at the world juniors. "There's no other pressure except the pressure I put on myself every day. I'm not here to impress scouts."
Once the world juniors started, fans and scouts alike watched Sweden, the tournament favorite in a lot of people's minds. They waited for Hedman to take over and it never quite happened. It wasn't that his game had holes -- no one was beating him, no big gaffes were made, nothing like that. He was effective when everyone was expecting a whole lot more.
Overshadowed not just by Tavares but also, at times, by his partner on Sweden's defense, Erik Karlsson, a feisty offense-minded D-man who was drafted by the Ottawa Senators in the first round in June 2008. It looked as if the comparisons to Chris Pronger or Nicklas Lidstrom had been premature.
This hasn't been the worst possible year for Hedman, not a completely lost season. More of a hiccup than a humbling. It's still hard to see him falling any further than the No. 2 slot. And no one in the business would rule out the possibility that, five years from now, he'll wind up being the best player coming out of the 2009 draft.
"He'd be the first pick in a lot of other years, and it might even turn out that a team picks him first in this year's draft," one NHL scout said. "It's not like the team that gets him will be settling for him. His upside is franchise defenseman."
Hedman's confidence doesn't seem to have suffered. Most Swedish prospects, even high first-rounders, take a cautious approach with the jump to the pros. Most -- like the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, in Vancouver, or Nicklas Backstrom in Washington -- spend a full season in Sweden after their high draft selections.
Hedman seems to be the exception on this count. The conventional wisdom says that defensemen take a little more time to develop into NHLers and that throwing an 18-year-old blueliner in against the pros can damage his confidence and put him at risk of injury. Hedman, though, thinks his experience in the Swedish elite league has prepared him to take the next step. "My goal is to play in the NHL as soon as possible," he said.
One NHL scout based in Sweden can see its playing out next season.
"Draft players are usually better to wait a year or two, just because you want to put them in a position to succeed and you don't want the risk of injury to [players] who aren't physically mature," the European scout said. "With Hedman, he's a late '90 [a birthday that would make him almost a year older than some draftees]. He'd be making the transition at 19 rather than 18, and he's a physically mature kid. I wouldn't recommend it just for business -- no team should want a player like this to be eligible for unrestricted free agency at age 25."
(This video of Hedman's workouts and game highlights with MODO helps make his case for sooner rather than later.)
MODO plays in Hedman's hometown of Örnsköldsvik in northern Sweden. For a town of 29,000, Örnsköldsvik has produced an amazing number of top players over the years, including the Sedins, Markus Naslund, Samuel Pahlsson and Peter Forsberg. In fact, this season Hedman has played with Forsberg, who had been attempting a comeback from a spate of injuries that have threatened to end his career.
Hedman, a low-key soft-spoken kid, seemed a little wide-eyed at the hype and noise around the world juniors -- playing in front of a crowd of 18,000 in the gold-medal game. Within a mile of the arena, there were probably 29,000 fans wrapped in Canadian flags.
"Going from Örnsköldsvik to the NHL, the culture shock might be a problem for him as much as the step-up in hockey," one NHL scout said. "They play league games in Stockholm and other cities, but it is a small town."
Although he's often compared to Pronger (a player who went second overall in his draft year in 1993), Hedman said he models his game after Lidstrom.
"Asking whose game mine is like is the hardest question there is," he said. "I like Lidstrom. He's a good two-way defenseman. Killing penalties, he's very calm with the puck. That's what I try to do -- be calm with the puck and know what to do with it. Lidstrom is great offensively. He's someone I look up to."
Admire Lidstrom? Sure. Look up to him? Well, Lidstrom is a few inches shorter. On the ice, Hedman might have to look up to make eye contact with Boston's Zdeno Chara, but that's about it.
And, on the draft board in June, he might be have to look up at Tavares, but he'll be looking down at everyone else.
Gare Joyce is a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.