The only consensus heading into the 2012 NHL Entry Draft was that there was no strong consensus.
If a poll had been conducted of GM’s, armchair GM’s, and those in between, the safe money was on the Edmonton Oilers selecting Sarnia Sting forward Nail Yakupov with their third consecutive first-overall pick, ahead of potential top picks Ryan Murray, an Everett Silvertips defenseman, and fellow Sarnia forward Alex Galchenyuk, who missed all but two OHL games with an ACL injury suffered in a preseason game.
So while the Oilers did settle on Yakupov with the first pick, it wasn’t as written-in-stone as previous first overall picks of the last several drafts, when Tampa Bay chose Steven Stamkos in 2008, the New York Islanders chose John Tavares in 2009, and Edmonton went with Taylor Hall in 2010 and Ryan Nugent Hopkins in 2011.
Yakupov, who broke Steven Stamkos’ franchise records in Sarnia with 49 goals and 101 points, was the Canadian Hockey League Rookie of the Year. He’ll look to become the sixth consecutive first overall pick to make the jump straight to the NHL since Erik Johnson returned to the University of Minnesota instead of joining the St. Louis Blues after bring selected first in 2006.
“I think yeah, why not?” Yakupov responded when asked if he was ready to make the jump. “I have lots of time for work in the summer…I think I’m ready for the NHL.”
Having spoken extensively with the Oilers, Yakupov shared his thoughts on joining a team that has been the leadoff batter at the NHL Draft for three years running.
“It’s a great, team, a pretty young team. I saw a game in Detroit when they played against Detroit, and they played good, great hockey. They’re young, but they play good,” he said.
“So I think it’s going to be a great team – plus me, maybe.”
On who he envisioned himself skating on a line with in Edmonton, Yakupov pulled out the strong team-friendly assessment, saying “with all my team.” He had already visited the area, which he acknowledged, obviously, as a hockey-mad Canadian city.
“I was in Edmonton,” Yakupov said. “It’s a great city – crazy fans that like hockey. It’s a hockey town…I play hockey. I just want to play hockey. I don’t worry about other sports.”
While the first and third picks – Yakupov and Galchenyuk – were used on forwards, it was a standout crop of Western Hockey League-groomed defenseman that dominated the early selections with five of the first eight picks. Murray, selected second by Columbus, headlined a group of players that included the fourth pick, Griffin Reinhart of the Edmonton Oil Kings, who went to the New York Islanders, along with the fifth selection, Moose Jaw Warriors slick skating blueliner Morgan Rielly, who went to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Mathew Dumba of the Red Deer Rebels went seventh overall to Minnesota, while Derrick Pouliot of the Portland Winterhawks went to Pittsburgh, who had acquired the eighth overall pick in a blockbuster trade with the Carolina Hurricanes. In addition to the eighth selection, the Penguins received center Brandon Sutter and defenseman Brian Dumoulin for center Marc Staal.
Six of the first eight picks from last year’s NHL Draft debuted with their big club in 2011-12, with center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Calder Trophy-winning forward Gabriel Landeskog tying for the rookie scoring lead with 52 points.
Should Yakupov and Galenchyuk experience similar success as the top two forwards taken, it would mean quite a lot for the two close friends and Sarnia teammates. After speaking with the media following their selections, they hugged each other downstairs in a stirring moment between two talented teenage hockey prospects.
Despite the jubilation, there were still tense moments before the draft opened as Yakupov, Murray and Galchenyuk were all under the microscope as potential first overall picks.
Yakupov, backed by an entourage that included his parents, an uncle, and a previous hockey coach, was finally able to relax after hearing his name called first.
“Yeah, I was nervous…But there’s no pressure now. I feel great now,” he said.