The Edmonton Oilers have to decide whether to opt for offense or defense with the first overall pick at the National Hockey League draft tonight.
While most hockey analysts agree that 18-year-old Russian forward Nail Yakupov is the most talented prospect, there is a group of defensemen including Canadians Ryan Murray, Morgan Rielly and Matt Dumba, any of whom Edmonton may choose to help its blue line.
Last year, the Oilers selected forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with the first overall pick. He was a finalist for the league’s Rookie of the Year award after recording 52 points in 62 games. The 19-year-old’s success doesn’t mean the Oilers are satisfied offensively, said Craig Button, an analyst for Canadian sports television channel TSN.
“If you think that there’s a defenseman that’s best for your organization, go ahead,” Button, a former general manager of the Calgary Flames, said in a telephone interview. “But 18- year-old kids don’t immediately help you win in the National Hockey League. This is all about getting the best player for your team and building for the future.”
The Oilers, who finished last season with 32 wins, third fewest in the league, haven’t indicated which direction they might be leaning. Stu MacGregor, the team’s head amateur scout, told the Edmonton Journal that this year’s top pick is wide open, as opposed to previous years when future All-Stars such as Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos were obvious top choices.
“It’s a different draft,” MacGregor said. “There hasn’t been any real significant player that has said ‘I’m the guy.’ That’s made it a little bit more interesting.”
The draft, which begins today with the first round and ends tomorrow, comes as a possible work stoppage looms for the NHL. The labor accord between owners and players expires on Sept. 15 and the sides have yet to meet to discuss a new agreement.
“For the young players, very few of them, single digits, will be able to play in the NHL as early as next year, so I don’t think the labor issue will hang over the draft,” Button said. “The players, the owners, commissioner Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr, the (players association) executive director, all see the game in a good place, and now the question just becomes how do you negotiate a new agreement that serves everyone’s needs.”
Yakupov, who scouts say is both an effective shooter and passer, could become the first Russian in eight years to be selected in the first five picks of the draft. The 5-foot-10, 189-pound forward this year led Russia to a silver medal at the World Junior Championships, where he had nine assists in seven games.
He told reporters this month that he’d be happy anywhere.
“Every team in the NHL is great,” Yakupov said. “I want to play in the NHL. It doesn’t matter what team it’s going to be. I want to be first, so we’ll see what happens.”
The last time a Russian was selected in the first five spots was 2004. The Washington Capitals took Alexander Ovechkin first overall and the Pittsburgh Penguins followed with Evgeni Malkin. Ovechkin and Malkin have combined for eight All-Star Game appearances and each has won the league’s Most Valuable Player award, with Malkin receiving the award two days ago.
“While they share a Russian heritage, I don’t see really similar styles of play,” Button said about possible comparisons between the three. “Nail is like a drag racer, he goes from 0 to 60 lightning quick. When he gets the puck, you get on the edge of your seat. He’s that exciting.”
Murray, a 6-foot-1, 201-pound defenseman, played with Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Devan Dubnyk of the Oilers while with Team Canada at the World Championships in April.
“It’s a developing team and that would be what any young guy wants coming into the league -- an opportunity to play and prove yourself,” Murray told reporters during a visit to Edmonton two weeks ago. “It’d be a pleasure to play with some of the guys on that team for sure.”
The Columbus Blue Jackets, who had a league-low 29 wins, will pick second, followed by the Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs. The New York Rangers pick at No. 28; the New Jersey Devils at No. 29.
Yakupov, who played junior hockey in Sarnia, Ontario, wants to boost both his income and his love life by joining the NHL. When asked this month during a visit to the Oilers if he had a girlfriend, he responded that he had two.
“I have one in Sarnia and one in Russia,” he joked. “I’m going to try for a third in Edmonton, so we’ll see.”
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