PITTSBURGH - And then there were four.
Jordan Eberle. Taylor Hall. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. And now Nail Yakupov.
The Edmonton Oilers, like some nuclear superpower from the cold war, keep amassing weapon, after weapon, after weapon, after dangerous weapon.
They are still a long, long way from becoming an actual NHL superpower, which is why they keep getting all these high picks, but at this rate it's only a matter of time until this team explodes.
"This is another offensive player we can add to what I hope I can call an arsenal," said Edmonton head scout Stu MacGregor, after the Oilers, selecting first overall for the third straight year, ended all of the draft week suspense by selecting the dynamic Russian winger. "He's just extremely fast, he's creative, he can score goals. Whenever I saw him get in all alone on a goaltender he didn't miss. He put it in. He has the potential to score 30 goals, maybe more. And you can't win games without scoring goals.
"That was the goal of it: We now have what we feel are four really good offensive players who are young."
The 5-11, 190-pounder from Nizhnekamsk, who grew up idolizing Pavel Bure, has drawn early comparisons to the speedy superstar. He broke the Sarnia Sting rookie records for goals (49) and points (101) previously held by Steven Stamkos and had 31 goals and 38 assists in an injury-shortened 42-game 2011-12 season.
While the rest of the Central Scouting rankings saw dramatic swings, Yakupov remained the consensus No.1 all year. And he can't wait to see what he and the rest of the Fab Four can do next winter.
"I feel great right now, excited to be in Edmonton, it's a great time in my life," grinned Yakupov, who expects to make the team out of training camp. "Yeah, why not? I have lots of time to work in the summer," he said. "I think I'm ready to play in the NHL. It's a great team, pretty young team. I saw a game in Detroit there and they showed great hockey. It's going to be a great team, plus me, maybe.
"I want to just work and show how I can play hockey. Help my team try and win every game. That's what I want."
The Oilers test drove Murray by inviting to the World Championships, and could dearly use a high-end defenceman, but the lure of Yakupov's upside was too great to resist.
"We talked about having elite skill within our organization," said general manager Steve Tambellini. "For us, trying to think of what that's going to look like with Hopkins, Hall, Eberle, Paajarvi, Hemsky … it's exciting.
"We got to choose another cornerstone piece of the organization."
In 2010 the question was Taylor or Tyler, and in 2011 there were concerns that Nugent-Hopkins was too small, but Tambellini, amid rumours that he'd either trade the pick or go with Everett defenceman Ryan Murray, went with the top-rated prospect for the third year in a row.
Now, with Hall on the left side, Nugent-Hopkins in the middle and Yakupov on right wing, Edmonton can make a line out of three first overall picks.
"I hadn't thought about that," grinned the GM. "That would be interesting."
The whole situation definitely piques Yakupov's interest.
"I was nervous," he said of the wait to see who Edmonton would take. "I just wanted to know who's first. It was probably me or another guy. I'm going to the next level, the next life. So, for now, this is my team."
The "for now" part is just the broken English part catching up with him, but drafting Russian players always comes with a certain risk.
Edmonton has been cool to Russians for the last decade or so; the last time they took one in the first round was Alexei Mikhnov at 17 in 2000 (one pick before defenceman Brooks Orpik). He stayed in Russia his whole career, barely giving North America a sideways glance.
Of the 98 players Edmonton drafted in the 11 years since, only five were Russian. They hadn't drafted one higher than the fourth round, hadn't picked one since 2006 and none have ever played a game for Edmonton.
But they are convinced there is no KHL flight risk in this situation.
"There is no Russian Factor," said MacGregor. "You have to give Nail credit. He came over here and extended himself to play in North America, wasn't afraid of any of it. He's abrave guy who wants to be the best and wants to play in the National Hockey League."
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