In a night full of drama everywhere else, the Edmonton Oilers went the safe route and stuck with the consensus first overall pick on Friday at the NHL draft.
Their prize for bottoming out in the standings this time around is Nail Yakupov, a slick Russian winger who scored 80 goals the past two seasons with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting and is believed to be a Pavel Bure type in the best case scenario.
“I’m excited and I can’t believe it,” Yakupov said shortly after putting on an Oilers jersey for the first time. “My parents are excited – they’re crying... I wanted to cry, too.”
Yakupov joins a growing cast of elite young talent in Edmonton that’s led by Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – all of whom were taken in the first round in the past four drafts.
Both Hall and Nugent-Hopkins – the first overall picks in 2010 and 2011 – stepped into the NHL immediately after they were drafted, something Yakupov believes he is prepared for.
“I think yeah, why not?” he said, doing little to dispel his reputation as somewhat cocky. “I have lots of time for work in the summer and work with Edmonton [to] try to make the team. I think I’m ready for the NHL.”
“I love the confidence,” Oilers GM Steve Tambellini said of his latest addition. “With that comes the courage to back it up.”
Yakupov’s selection at No. 1 was widely expected in the weeks leading up to Friday’s first round, although there had also been plenty of speculation the past two days that the Oilers could take Everett Silvertips defenceman Ryan Murray in order to fill a positional need.
Instead, Murray went to the Columbus Blue Jackets at No. 2, allowing the Montreal Canadiens to take the player they had coveted in Sting centre Alex Galchenyuk.
It really wasn’t until the Toronto Maple Leafs pick at No. 5 that the first real surprise came.
Widely expected to be looking for a forward, Leafs GM Brian Burke instead went with Moose Jaw Warriors defender Morgan Rielly, who some scouts have compared to Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson.
“We had this player rated first overall,” Burke said. “I wouldn’t say that if it wasn’t true.”
That pick, along with the New York Islanders taking Griffin Reinhart at No. 4, started a run of seven defencemen in a row – which combined with Murray’s selection set a new NHL record with eight blueliners in the first 10 picks.
Later in the night, two of the other Canadian teams followed the trend with the Leafs and took blueliners. The Winnipeg Jets went with big American blueliner Jacob Trouba at ninth while the Ottawa Senators selected a hometown favourite in Ottawa 67s defenceman Cody Ceci.
Senators GM Bryan Murray revealed he had been trying to trade up to get Ceci and was ecstatic he slipped to their spot at 15th.
“He told me his mother was more happy than anybody because he didn’t have to leave home,” Murray said. “And the good thing is he can pick me up on his way to the arena every morning and drive me.”
The Calgary Flames originally had the 14th overall pick but traded down to 21st with the Buffalo Sabres in order to nab Mark Jankowski and get back a second-round pick.
Flames GM Jay Feaster told gathered media he felt Jankowski, who plays in a little known prep school league, would ultimately turn out to be the draft’s best player.
“I really want to prove him right,” Jankowski said. “I think in 10 years I can be the best player in this draft.”
The Vancouver Canucks then took Belleville Bulls centre Brendan Gaunce at 26th as one of the final picks on Day 1 of the draft.
“All I thought of was Henrik and Daniel Sedin and how am I going to tell them apart if I ever get to see them,” Gaunce said of the two Canucks stars. “They’re a great organization to be with.”
While this was a draft considered deep on blueliners, many were expected to go in the middle of the first round. Instead the streak of seven in a row between No. 4 and No. 10 meant forwards like Filip Forsberg, Mikhail Grigorenko and Teuvo Teravainen – all projected by at least one top scouting services go in the top five – were in for an uncomfortable wait in the stands.
Forsberg fell to 11th to the Washington Capitals followed by Grigorenko to the Buffalo Sabres one pick later. Teravainen, whose size was likely the issue, dropped to the Chicago Blackhawks all the way at 18th.
Those top prospects sliding – along with three high profile trades that saw Jordan Staal, Mike Ribeiro and Lubomir Visnovsky all change teams before the first eight picks were made – will make this one of the more intriguing drafts to look back on in the years to come.
Soon after the first round ended, Penguins GM Ray Shero was at it again, as he met with Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney on the draft floor and ultimately shipped defenceman Zbynek Michalek back to his former team.
More big names could be dealt by the end of the weekend, too, with Roberto Luongo, Rick Nash and Bobby Ryan all still on the block.
Ryan, the Ducks forward taken behind Sidney Crosby in the 2005 draft, even came out on Friday and requested to be moved after months of hearing his name in trade rumours.
“Anaheim to me has been a team over the past year that really has shown me nothing to prove that they want me here, unfortunately,” Ryan told the Courier-Post. “I’ve got to be honest with you. At this point, I don’t care. Move me... because it’s just tough going to the rink every day knowing that if something goes wrong, you’re going to be the guy moved.”
After all the night’s wheeling and dealing on the draft floor, Tambellini’s choice to simply stick with Yakupov may have seemed rather mundane, but it was likely the correct one given his skill set.
“He has the potential to score 30 goals,” Oilers head scout Stu MacGregor said. “Maybe more. You can't win games without scoring goals.”
Just as Staal fetched three quality assets in the Penguins deal with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Oilers can now always move one of their talented forwards for help on the back end in the hopes of finally exiting the league’s basement.
“We know and the players know that expectations are higher,” Tambellini said. “And they should be. You’re starting to hear some of the young players talk about they want to compete for a playoff spot. And that’s what they should be talking about.”
Canadian team picks
1. Edmonton: Nail Yakupov, LW, Sarnia Sting (OHL)
3. Montreal: Alex Galchenyuk, C, Sarnia Sting (OHL)
5. Toronto: Morgan Rielly, D, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)
9. Winnipeg: Jacob Trouba, D, U.S. Under-18 (USHL)
15. Ottawa: Cody Ceci, D, Ottawa 67s (OHL)
21. Calgary: Mark Jankowski, C, Stanstead College (MPHL)
26. Vancouver: Brendan Gaunce, C, Belleville Bulls (OHL)
Round 1 by birthplace: Canada (14), United States (six), Russia (three), Czech Republic (two), Finland (two), Sweden (two) and Latvia (one).
Round 1 by league: OHL (11), WHL (six), USHL (six), Sweden (two) and others (five).