For all the suspense and speculation, New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow decided to go with the consensus, selecting prolific London Knights forward John Tavares with the first pick in the NHL entry draft last night.
Though the rumour mill cast doubt on the identity of their choice - one Islanders fan sported a jersey with removable name tags - the sad-sack Isles opted for goals instead of defensive stoutness in Tavares, an offensive dynamo who holds the Ontario Hockey League's goal-scoring record and has been projected as the class of 2009's top prospects since he was 16.
"It's a special moment … I've been in the spotlight for a long time, and I understand it's only going to get even bigger. Leaving home at 14 years old, away from my family, I knew this was what I really wanted," said Tavares, who immediately made it clear his focus is already on the coming NHL season. "But it's only one day … I've got a big summer ahead of me here and hopefully a big year where I can make the club and make a big impact."
The Tampa Bay Lightning wasted little time in selecting towering Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman with the second pick. The NHL-ready Hedman, who has played the past two seasons for MoDo of the Swedish Elite League, had been mooted as a possible top pick.
"I think it helped me a lot to play in a men's league, I know what it's all about, but the NHL is another level and I want to bring my game to another level," said Hedman, a 6-foot-6, 220 pound defenceman who combines a deft offensive touch with a healthy mean streak and should slot into Tampa's defence corps this fall.
The Philadelphia Flyers didn't wait to make it to the draft floor before making the boldest move of the day, acquiring rough-hewn Anaheim Ducks defenceman Chris Pronger and prospect Ryan Dingle for forward Joffrey Lupul, defenceman Luca Sbisa, the Flyers' first-round pick last night (21st overall), their first choice in 2010-11 and a conditional pick.
The acquisition of the 34-year-old Pronger, the last defenceman to win the league's MVP award, adds a new dimension of toughness and skill and is an unmistakable signal to division rivals Pittsburgh and Washington, who suddenly will have to cope with Pronger in addition to fellow wide-body Braydon Coburn and the offensive-minded Kimmo Timonen.
Flyers GM Paul Holmgren, asked how this deal came about, answered: "It goes back over the last few weeks. I was talking to Bob [Murray, the Ducks' GM] He asked, if they decided to move Chris, would we have interest? Obviously, I told him we would, and it went from there."
Holmgren said he couldn't make the Pronger deal at the NHL trade deadline because of salary-cap reasons, but would have interest in him in the summer, if he were available then.
In Pronger, Holmgren believes he has a player who can help them get over the top.
"First of all, he's a proven winner. Secondly, he brings the size. He can pass the puck as well as anybody. He brings a nice physical presence, both in stature and in the way he plays. I think he's an ideal fit on our team, and he's going to make every other defenceman on our team better. He'll be an excellent role model for all the young players in our organization."
And the price?
"It's a lot to give up absolutely. Ask me a year from now, or three years from now, if it was worth it. I mean, Joffrey Lupul is a fine young man and a good player. Luca Sbisa will be a good player, and obviously, the unknowns are the draft picks. We're trying to win here and we think Chris is a guy that can help us get closer to achieving our goal," Holmgren said.
With the third pick, the Colorado Avalanche fulfilled Brampton Battalion centre Matt Duchene's boyhood dream of being drafted by his favourite team.
"I keep looking down at the logo and going 'are you kidding me?' I used to draw this every day at school. This is unbelievable," the beaming native of Haliburton, Ont., said.
Vancouver Giants power forward Evander Kane, picked fourth by the Atlanta Thrashers, and Brandon Wheat Kings centre Brayden Schenn, drafted by the L.A. Kings, rounded out the top five.
The Toronto Maple Leafs took London Knights forward Nazem Kadri with the seventh selection, the Ottawa Senators grabbed behemoth Western Hockey League defenceman Jared Cowan with the ninth pick, and the Edmonton Oilers selected Swedish forward Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson at No. 10.
After the recent first-round domination by American and European prospects, it was the second consecutive year that four Canadian-born players were selected in the first five picks of the draft, no U.S.-born players were taken in the top 15 picks.
There were reports yesterday the Islanders could shock the oddsmakers by selecting Duchene with their pick, but to choose anyone other than Tavares would likely have prompted a near-riot among the Islanders' fans, who had loudly demanded he be the pick on Internet forums and call-in shows.
Indeed, the Bell Centre's screens were filled with images as thousands of delirious fans celebrated the selection in the Nassau County Coliseum.
The draft may have been the toughest ticket in Montreal, but there were swaths of empty seats in the lower bowl of the Bell Centre.
Fans arrived early to pack the upper reaches of the arena, the Montreal, Toronto and Boston crowds started haranguing each other, and although Snow was spared the boos of the Islanders' supporters in attendance, the same can't be said for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Despite taking the stage with Montreal Canadiens legends Yvan Cournoyer and Henri Richard, lusty boos rained down from the rafters.