TORONTO - For those who are worried about the reluctance of some Russian players to play in the NHL, instead favouring the Kontinental Hockey League, consider what a couple of young stars have to say.
Alex Galchenyuk, who was born in Milwaukee but had dual U.S/Russian citizenship, said on Friday at the draft combine he no longer possesses a Russian passport. And Nail Yakupov, who should be the No. 1 pick in the NHL entry draft on June 22-23, couldn’t have put what he thinks of the NHL more plainly.
“This is the best moment of my life, it has started here, from the combine to the draft,” Yakupov said to a group of reporters at the Toronto International Centre. “For me, I think just about the NHL.”
While Yakupov spent the 2011-12 regular season tearing up the Ontario Hockey League, Galchenyuk, his Sarnia Sting teammate, did not have such a luxury. Galchenyuk played in just eight games, including six in the playoffs, after recovering from a knee injury.
But few expect Galchenyuk’s lost season to significantly influence his draft stock. The Maple Leafs would love to get him with the fifth pick, but there is no guarantee he will be available then.
“It was really difficult, but that’s life,” Galchenyuk said of his injury. “This year was a good lesson. I took it seriously, and positively.
“You look at the TV and you see all the rankings and you can’t do anything, you are sitting on the couch with your crutches. But if you felt bad about yourself, I probably would not have come back. I believed in myself and I worked hard.”
The teams that come away with Yakupov and Galchenyuk likely don’t have to worry about another scenario in the vein of the Nashville Predators’ Alex Radulov, who abandoned the NHL club in 2008 for the KHL before returning this past winter. And some teams are hesitant to pick a Russian considering the problems the Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues have had with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko, respectively, in trying to convince them to play in the NHL.
Forward Mikhail Grigorenko, another highly ranked Russian, has been facing the same questions as Galchenyuk and Yakupov, and he made it clear on Friday he is not wavering about his desire to have a long career in the NHL.
Galchenyuk was born in Wisconsin when his father played minor professional hockey, and his dad’s career took him to Italy and Moscow, among other stops.
Galchenyuk was asked about his favourite aspect of the combine, and his answer was revealing.
“To see the NHL logo all over the place,” the 18-year-old said. “Since I was a little kid, I wanted to play in the NHL, it was my dream.
“I just have my American passport now, and it was my decision all the way. My dad said to make the decision that makes me comfortable. I felt comfortable about USA Hockey and how they treat the players. I consider myself an American.”
OILERS COULD SHOCK HOCKEY WORLD
Steve Tambellini will consider offers for the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NHL entry draft until the last possible moment, but the Edmonton Oilers general manager reiterated on Friday that he’s not going to give it away.
“You always listen,” Tambellini said at the NHL draft combine. “But for us to move the No. 1 pick it would have to be quite a significant proposal. We’re not sure who this pick is now, and that’s the way it has been the past couple of years.”
If the Oilers do not deal the pick — and so far Tambellini has had just “soft calls” — many expect Edmonton to pick Sarnia forward Nail Yakupov with the first choice. But a few observers say they would not be shocked if the Oilers set the NHL on its ear and picked Everett defenceman Ryan Murray. The latter played for Canada at the world championship last month and was held in high regard by Oilers president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe, who was Canada’s GM.
On the topic of hiring a new Oilers coach, Tambellini said, “If it is done at the draft (or before), great. If it is done after that, so be it.”
CECI TALKIN’ BURKE
A significant component of the NHL draft combine is the interview process, wherein teams have a chance to learn more about players, and vice versa, away from the rink.
But Ottawa 67’s defenceman Cody Ceci and Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke squeezed in an off-the-cuff conversation back in February when the Leafs were in Ottawa to play the Senators. Burke attended a 67’s game and Ceci didn’t play because of an injury, and the pair chatted in the stands.
“He didn’t say he was going to draft me or anything, but it was more of getting to know me and my personality,” Ceci said. “And I saw a different side of him, away from the cameras. I’m glad I got the opportunity. It would be great to play in Toronto.”
Ceci might one day play for an NHL team in Toronto, but it’s doubtful the 6-foot-3, 207-pound native of Orleans, Ont., would do so in a Leafs uniform. The Leafs have the fifth pick, which likely is too soon for Ceci to be selected, and he would be gone by the time the Leafs pick in the second round. Toronto is keeping the option open, however, as Ceci is scheduled to be one of the players it will meet with on Sunday.