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Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting warms up prior to his OHL game against the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga Sunday Nov. 13, 2011. (Tim Fraser For The Globe and Mail)
Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting warms up prior to his OHL game against the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga Sunday Nov. 13, 2011. (Tim Fraser For The Globe and Mail)

nhl draft

If Oilers don’t Nail this pick, trouble looms Add to ...

There is an old-school assumption about defensive prospects that NHL teams may need to rethink on the eve of the 2012 entry draft, with the Edmonton Oilers poised to pick first again for the third consecutive year.

The Oilers will need to choose between Nail Yakupov, the consensus No. 1 pick, a Russian who’s played the last two seasons for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League, and the handful of quality defensive prospects just behind him.

Just about everybody in hockey subscribes to the same well-worn truth when it comes to assessing young defencemen vis-à-vis forwards: Generally, defencemen take far longer to develop than forwards, so if the goal is to win sooner rather than later, as it is in Edmonton, then the best strategy is to take the most NHL-ready prospect, the forward.

But that thinking really doesn’t hold up to scrutiny any more.

Consider that in terms of its overall makeup, the 2012 draft class bears some resemblance to 2008, which also featured one consensus all-world forward at the top – Steven Stamkos – plus a lot of quality on the blueline.

Four years after the fact, virtually every young defenceman making an impact in the NHL came from that star-studded 2008 draft: Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Tyler Myers, Erik Karlsson, Jake Gardiner, Michael Del Zotto, John Carlson.

It was a bonanza of defensive prospects, chosen in both the first and second rounds. Compare that to the forwards drafted that same year who, theoretically, should be ahead of their defensive counterparts on the development curve. Well, Stamkos is a star and so is the Oilers’ Jordan Eberle, selected 19th overall, while Cody Hodgson played regularly last season, splitting time between the Vancouver Canucks and the Buffalo Sabres.

But of the 16 forwards taken in the first round in 2008, most are still trying to find their way and are lagging far behind their defensive counterparts – Nikita Filatov, Colin Wilson, Mikkel Boedker, Kyle Beach, Zach Boychuk, Joe Colborne, Mattias Tedenby, Greg Nemisz, Viktor Tikhonov, Daulton Leveille.

Maybe it’s a function of how the NHL changed postlockout and put a premium on defencemen who can move the puck as opposed to moving out the man, but the reality is, in recent years, high-end defencemen have made the adjustment to the NHL as quickly, or even more quickly, than the forwards.

So back to 2012 and the Oilers’ quandary at the top of the draft. If they pick Yakupov because they believe he is far and away the best player in the draft, then that is a wholly defensible decision (and their likeliest course of action). But if they make Yakupov their default pick because they don’t want to deal with a defenceman’s learning curve, then that’s flawed thinking.

At some point, the Oilers will need to start edging out from the back of the pack, if only to keep the development of their young players from stunting.

The question Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini will ponder in the next 48 hours is this: After all these years of taking baby steps forward, when will they take that giant leap into playoff contention? And if there aren’t enough pieces in place right now to contend for a playoff spot, is it time to add those pieces through the trade market and dangle this year’s No. 1 pick?

The Oilers need to remember one other thing: It’s one thing to draft high-end talent, another to retain it.

Nowadays, players coming out of their three-year entry-level contracts are seeking the moon and the stars in new deals; Karlsson’s seven-year, $45.5-million contract with the Senators is just the latest example. Accordingly, if the Oilers commit to three high-end forwards in three consecutive drafts, they may find themselves in the situation that Pittsburgh faces with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Can you really pay all the money to forwards and not save something for defence and goal?

This sort of intrigue and hard-edged decision making is what makes the draft such compelling theatre. The stakes are so high, and the teams scuffling along at the bottom need to weigh the risk of making a bold move against the possibility that it could backfire in a big way.

Tambellini is on the clock right now, and after six consecutive years outside the playoffs, it is ticking on the Oilers too.

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