Nail Yakupov is ready to live with the spotlight that comes with being a No. 1 pick.
On the night he was chosen first in the NHL draft, he had to share it when the host Pittsburgh Penguins traded popular forward Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes.
An hour after the Edmonton Oilers started the draft on Friday night by selecting the dynamic 18-year-old Russian forward with the top overall selection, the Penguins shook up the somewhat ho-hum proceedings by sending Staal to a reunion with his brother Eric in Carolina.
When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced the trade, Consol Energy Center shook with the kind of fervor normally reserved for a playoff game and dwarfed the modest applause that accompanied Yakupov to the stage to don an Oilers sweater.
No matter. Yakupov never really bought into the hype anyway. The sooner he can start playing and stop talking, the better.
”I can’t wait,” Yakupov said after being the first Russian taken with the No. 1 pick since Washington drafted Alex Ovechkin in 2004.
Yakupov respects the two-time MVP but patterns his game after another Russian star, Pavel Bure. In a way, Yakupov already has one leg up on his idol.
The Russian Rocket scored 437 goals during his 12-year career, but he wasn’t taken until the sixth round of the 1989 draft.
Yakupov, who spent the last two seasons with the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League, didn’t have to wait nearly as long to hear his name called. The Oilers, picking No. 1 for the third straight year, practically sprinted to the podium to grab the player they believe is the next piece of a core that includes center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and winger Taylor Hall, the top picks in the previous two drafts.
”I think it’s going to be a great team,” Yakupov said.
Yakupov, who scored 31 goals in 42 games last season, is eager for the next step following weeks of speculation.
”It’s not over, it’s just starting,” he said.
Born in the Republic of Tatarstan in Russia, Yakupov has consistently shot down speculation he is going to return to his homeland and play in the Kontinental Hockey League. He stressed repeatedly in the days leading up to the draft that the NHL is ”the best league in the world.”
While hardly the biggest player on the ice, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Yakupov has dazzling speed and nimble footwork. He plays with a relentlessness that made him the top player on most draft boards. Yakupov broke Sarnia’s rookie scoring record – held by Steven Stamkos – in the 2010-11 season when he finished with 49 goals and 101 points.
Yakupov was also a rarity in a top 10 dominated by defense. Other than Sarnia teammate Alex Galchenyuk – taken third overall by Montreal – the other eight picks were defensemen.
The Columbus Blue Jackets continued to shore up their blue line by taking Ryan Murray of the Western Hockey League’s Everett Silvertips with the second pick. The 6-foot, 198-pound Murray had nine goals and 22 assists in 46 games last season.
The 18-year-old Murray became the youngest player since Paul Kariya in 1993 to play for Team Canada in the world championships this spring, and his ability to make an impact on both ends of the ice won over the rebuilding Blue Jackets.
”We are very happy to have Ryan Murray join our organization,” Columbus general manager Scott Howson said. ”He solidifies what we believe is a position of strength. His character and two-way play will be very valuable to our hockey club.”
The prideful Canadiens, coming off a miserable season, hope Galchenyuk can one day provide a needed spark to a lethargic offense. The talented center missed all but two games of this past season after he tore a knee ligament.
Galchenyuk, born in the United States to Russian parents, is considered a gifted passer. He totaled 31 goals and 52 assists during the 2010-11 season. He already speaks two languages, and joked that he had better start picking up French.
”I think I have classes starting next week,” he said with a laugh.
With the top high-flying forwards off the board, teams then went heavy on defense in a draft considered short on offensive star power.
The New York Islanders chose defenseman Griffin Reinhart with the fourth pick, starting a run of seven straight defensemen taken.
Among them was Derrick Pouliot, taken eighth overall. That Pouliot was taken so high wasn’t remarkable, it was the team that got the pick to grab him that shook up the night.
The Hurricanes had the eighth selection but things changed quickly when Bettman walked onto the stage and announced a trade the hometown crowd ”might want to hear.”
Moments later, Pouliot pulled on a black Pittsburgh jersey.
”Yeah, I was a little surprised,” Pouliot said.
So was the crowd following a whirlwind 24 hours in which the 23-year-old Staal turned down a contract extension from the Penguins, setting off a series of events that ended with Staal – who is getting married this weekend with most of his former Penguins teammates expected to attend – moving on.
”We wanted a deal (with Staal),” Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero said. ”But it was obvious in the last 24 hours that … this was the right thing to do.”
Staal, who helped Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup title in 2009, will join brother Eric in Carolina.
The Penguins weren’t done dealing, sending defenseman Zbynek Michalek to Phoenix for defenseman Harrison Ruopp, goalie Marc Cheverie, and a third-round pick. Michalek played five seasons with the Coyotes before signing a free-agent deal with Pittsburgh in 2010.
Washington ended the run on defensemen, taking center Filip Forsberg with the No. 11 pick. The 17-year-old Forsberg was the youngest player on Team Sweden at the 2012 World Junior championships. Forsberg said he models his game after former NHL star Peter Forsberg, though the two aren’t related.
The Buffalo Sabres took center Mikhail Grigorenko, who like Yakupov is from Russia, with the No. 12 selection. The massive 6-foot-3, 200-pound Grigorenko led rookies in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in scoring last season, netting 40 goals and adding 45 assists for the Quebec Remparts.
The Staals weren’t the only players who made the draft a family affair. The Boston Bruins chose goalie Malcolm Subban with the No. 24 pick. Subban’s older brother, P.K., is a forward with the Canadians.
Phoenix drafted forward Henrik Samuelsson at No. 27. Samuelsson’s father, Ulf, played 1,080 games in the NHL and won two Stanley Cup titles with Pittsburgh.
The elder Samuelsson received a warm ovation when his face flashed up on the Jumbotron. It likely won’t be the same for former NHL Stephane Matteau, whose son Stefan was taken by the New Jersey Devils with the 29th pick.
Stephane Matteau, playing for the New York Rangers, eliminated the Devils and rookie goalie Martin Brodeur with a double-overtime goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 1994.
Now his son will try to help the franchise that is coming off a Stanley Cup finals loss to the Los Angeles Kings earlier this month.