They were together often during the run-up to the 2009 NHL Draft, a couple of 18-year-olds being wheeled around Montreal as part of the NHL’s marquee amateur event. One had been in the Canadian hockey spotlight since he’d barely become a teenager, the other was a bit of an unknown from Sweden.
“He’s a great guy and you could tell he was used to everything that was going on,” Victor Hedman said of John Tavares. “I was kind of new to it.”
“We just really talked a lot about hockey,” Tavares recalled. “There wasn’t a lot else.”
They went 1-2 in that draft, of course. Tavares went to the Islanders to become the franchise cornerstone, Hedman to the Lightning on an up-and-coming team that had the 2008 No. 1 pick, Steven Stamkos, as well as seasoned veterans like Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.
They will be linked forever by that draft and will see plenty of one another on the ice as this Eastern Conference semifinal between the Islanders and Lightning gets underway Wednesday night in Tampa.
Hedman, the 6-foot-6, smooth-skating defenseman and Tavares, the determined center. Matchups in today’s NHL are defense pair vs. forward line and Hedman vs. Tavares will be the focal point from the start, especially given the way the Islanders captain capped their six-game series win over the Panthers on Sunday night.
“I know 91 is going to see a lot of him; Johnny knows going into every game on the road what guys he’s going to match up with,” Jack Capuano said. “He thrives on those opportunities to play against the best.”
Tavares didn’t see a big, elite defenseman in the first round, and it showed. The Panthers tried a few different combinations to slow Tavares down, starting with Brian Campbell and Erik Gudbranson, but Tavares was prepared for Gudbranson’s physical style and used his stick-handling skills and his elusiveness to stay out of trouble.
“He’s a smart guy and he can try to get lost sometimes,” Hedman said. “You could see on the tying goal (in Game 6), it’s six on five but he kind of got lost, nobody picked him up and he buried that puck.”
There’s also the direct approach that Tavares used in double-overtime to cement the game and the series. He followed his shot, bulled past Campbell and Aaron Ekblad, raced around the net and flicked a backhand into the open side.
“Working on my game over the years, you just never want to be one-dimensional,” Tavares said. “If they’re taking something away you have to find another way to create opportunities and be hard to play against. Over a long series you want to keep wearing them down, physically and mentally. Trying to find different ways to be productive.”
Garth Snow knew he was taking Tavares for a long while in the days and weeks before that night on the draft floor in the Bell Centre in 2009. Out of courtesy, he listened to offers from other general managers for the No. 1 pick, including one from the team picking right behind him.
“One scenario would have seen us potentially move other players and take John to pair with Stamkos, the other was not move any key players and take Victor,” former Lightning GM Brian Lawton said. “It’s very, very difficult to find quality defensemen.”
And Hedman has blossomed into one of the best in the game. He got a quick taste of the postseason in 2011 when the Lightning made a surprise run to the Eastern Conference final, but it was four years before he emerged as a team leader and helped carry the load last spring as the Lightning lost to the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup final.
“He’s proven himself to be one of the top defensemen in the league,” Tavares said. “Every time we play against them it’s always a great challenge, last year’s playoffs he really put that D corps on his shoulders and was huge for them. There’ll be comparisons, people will talk about (the draft), but we’re both just going to focus on our teams. That’s all we can really do. Those battles are always fun and you look forward to them.”