TAMPA — If things had gone a certain way, Victor Hedman and John Tavares would still be going head-to-head in this second-round playoff series, which begins tonight at Amalie Arena.
Except that Hedman might be playing for the Islanders, Tavares for the Lightning.
They were the top picks in the 2009 NHL draft at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Tavares, a dynamic center, went No. 1, and Hedman, a dominant defenseman, went No. 2. Brian Lawton, then the Lightning general manager, said they had two plans: either pick Hedman second or trade some "established forwards" to move up to No. 1 and take Tavares, making him and Steven Stamkos, the No. 1 pick in 2008, a "one-two punch."
The problem was, Lawton says, Islanders GM Garth Snow didn't want to trade the top pick, discussions going nowhere. And that was fine with Lawton.
"It was a no-lose scenario," said Lawton, now an NHL Network analyst.
And now the Hedman-Tavares matchup could go a long way in determining who wins this best-of-seven series and moves on to the Eastern Conference final. Tavares, the Islanders' captain, carried New York on his back in a first-round victory over the Panthers, scoring the tying and winning goals in Sunday's series-clinching double-overtime Game 6 win. And Hedman, the Lightning's cornerstone defenseman, will largely be tasked with shadowing and shutting down the 2009 No. 1 pick.
And this is nearly seven years after the duo became forever linked at the draft. Who would have thought?
"You can talk about (Alex) Ovechkin and (Sidney) Crosby, well that's great," TSN analyst Craig Button said of the other second-round series with the Capitals and Penguins. "But this series with Hedman and Tavares has every bit, in my view — maybe not the marquee — but the substance and elite status of those players."
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Darryl Plandowski said it's hard to believe that it has already been seven years.
Plandowski, the Lightning's head amateur scout, recalls following both Tavares and Hedman for two years. Tavares was with the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League, Hedman over in Sweden for the powerhouse Modo program.
In late May 2009 at the scouting combine in Toronto, Plandowski & Co. took Tavares and Hedman out to dinner separately on back-to-back nights. Both were teenagers but acted like men — mature and smart, and having researched the Lightning organization.
"After (Tavares' dinner), I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, if we ever get ahold of this guy, what a great piece to build a franchise around.' " Plandowski said. "And after Victor's, it was like, 'It doesn't matter.'
"You walked away kind of drooling at how bad the year was and disappointing, but the icing on the cake was getting one of those guys."
Forward Matt Duchene, picked No. 3 by the Avalanche, was also brought in with Tavares and Hedman for a predraft Tampa visit. Tavares said he saw a really nice and competitive kid in Hedman, the two talking mostly hockey and Sweden.
"It was a little different for me; (Tavares) had been in the spotlight for so long," Hedman said. "I didn't really have that playing back in Sweden and coming over here and seeing everyone, it was a little bit of an eye opener for me. He's a great guy; you can tell he's used to everything going around."
Lawton said scouts really liked Duchene, but as a group they ended up going with Hedman.
"To Victor's credit, he's validated that 100 percent," Lawton said.
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While both Tavares and Hedman stepped into the NHL immediately as rookies, the Islanders forward's star rose more quickly.
Tavares racked up 24 goals in his first year and has tallied at least that many in each of his seven seasons with a career high of 38 in 2014-15.
Defensemen typically take longer to develop — the theory is 200 NHL games — and that was the case with Hedman, a smooth-skating, 6-foot-6 Swede who had to grow into his body.
But by the 2013-14 season, Hedman began transforming into that elite, top-pairing defenseman. Under coach Jon Cooper, who encouraged Hedman to play his 200-foot offensive game, the Swede became the complete package, with then a career-high 13 goals and 42 assists. Hedman followed it up with a Conn Smythe-caliber postseason in 2014-15, a coming-out-party for him nationally.
"It does take defensemen longer," said Button, a former Flames general manager. "An analogy for Hedman is Aaron Rodgers (the Packers quarterback). Were there players who came to the NFL ahead of Rodgers and played and competed and were ahead of him? Yeah. But name me a better player in that draft now. …
"(Hedman) is a force, an absolute force, there's no question about that. And if you didn't know it this year, you weren't watching last year. He impacts the game everywhere."
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So what happens when the two forces collide?
Hedman won't be the only Lightning player defending Tavares, with center Valtteri Filppula and his line likely to draw that matchup. But Hedman, who logged 25 or more minutes in the first five games of the first-round series against Detroit, will no doubt be thrown over the boards when Tavares is out there.
Hedman notes Tavares is tough to get off the puck, a very smart player who "can get lost" on the ice. The key is keeping Tavares close, Hedman using his speed and stick.
"Obviously we're in the same draft and went one-two," Hedman said. "He's a world-class player; he's one of the best players in the league. It's going to be a big challenge. We're up for it."
So is Tavares.
"(Hedman) has proven himself to be one of the top defensemen in the league," Tavares said Tuesday in New York. "He's got such great physical ability and hockey IQ. Every time we play against him it's always a great challenge. He had a great playoff last year, he really put that D-core on his shoulders in many ways and was huge for their run last year.
"Obviously there's going to be comparisons and people talk about it, but we're just focused on how we're going to help our team. That's all we can really do."
And Lawton can't wait to watch.
"It's going to be fascinating," Lawton said. "I would imagine Jon Cooper, he'll want Hedman on the ice as much as he can when Tavares is.
"I'm dying to see the result."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
By the numbers
25:17 Average time on ice for John Tavares in playoffs.
27:02 Average time on ice for Victor Hedman in playoffs.
45.7 Corsi-for percentage for Hedman in playoffs (percentage of time team controls play when he's on ice).
54.7 Corsi-for percentage for Tavares in playoffs.