PITTSBURG, Pa. - The Edmonton Oilers added another young gun to their roster Friday, selecting slick Russian winger Nail Yakupov first overall in an NHL draft otherwise top-heavy in defencemen.
Eight of the top 10 picks were blue-liners but the Oilers elected not to opt for defensive help or trade down. They instead stuck to the book, taking the top-ranked North American-based player in the Central Scouting rankings.
At a little under five foot 11 and 185 pounds, Yakupov is not big and this season was disrupted by injury. But he is explosive with good hands and has spent two seasons with Sarnia in the OHL, meaning he is acclimatized to North America.
Oilers head scout Stu MacGregor called the Russian a "dynamic offensive talent."
"Whenever I saw him get in all alone on a goaltender, he didn't miss. He put it in," said MacGregor. "He has the potential—and I want to say potential—to score 30 goals (a season). Maybe more. You can't win without scoring goals."
"He's hungry to perform, he's hungry to score," added GM Steve Tambellini. "He's an emotional player, an explosive player. So for us, trying to think of what that's going to look with (Ryan Nugent-) Hopkins, (Taylor) Hall, (Jordan) Eberle, (Magnus) Paajarvi, (Ales) Hemsky, (it's) exciting."
Not short on confidence, Yakupov said he felt he can help the Oilers right away.
"I think yeah, why not?" said Yakupov. "I have lots of time for work in the summer and work with Edmonton, (to) try to make the team. I think I'm ready for the NHL."
Said MacGregor: "I'm not going to put that kind of pressure on him."
The last Russian to go first overall was Alexander Ovechkin, to the Washington Capitals in 2004. Atlanta opened the 2001 draft by taking Ilya Kovalchuk.
The last four top picks have been Canadian: Nugent-Hopkins and Hall (Edmonton), John Tavares (Islanders) and Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay).
There were 47 Russians taken in the 1992 draft alone, compared to just eight in 2011, when just 30 Russians played in the NHL.
"He's a very exciting player to watch," Nugent-Hopkins said of Yakupov. "And he's got some great skill obviously and he's a hard worker. It's going to be great to get the chance to play with him."
The Oilers won the lottery after finishing 29th in the league with a 32-40-10 record, nine points ahead of 29-46-7 Columbus.
Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips went second to the Blue Jackets, the first of eight defencemen in the next nine picks.
"I was pretty nervous before the draft. It seemed like I was in the building for about an hour but it felt like a day," said Murray.
The Montreal Canadiens did not opt for the blue-line, choosing centre Alex Galchenyuk, Yakupov's teammate at Sarnia.
The Milwaukee-born forward—his father was playing minor league hockey for the AHL Admirals—said all the right things before a media throng. He's proud to wear the Habs jersey and plans to add French to his linguistic arsenal of English, Russian and Italian.
Galchenyuk suffered a knee injury in the pre-season but returned with two games remaining.
"We did our homework," Trevor Timmins, the Canadiens' director of procurement and player development, said of the injury.
A run on defencemen followed with Griffin Reinhart of the Edmonton Oil Kings (New York Islanders), Morgan Rielly of Moose Jaw Warriors (Toronto), Sweden's Hampus Lindholm (Anaheim), Matthew Dumba of the Red Deer Rebels (Minnesota), Derrick Pouliot of the Portland Winterhawks (Pittsburgh, using Carolina's pick acquired in a trade that sent centre Jordan Staal to the Hurricanes), Jacob Trouba of the U.S. under-18 team (Winnipeg) and Slater Koekkoek of the Peterborough Petes (Tampa Bay).
Thirteen defenceman in all went in the first round, with five of the first six from the WHL.
Reinhart, the son of former Flames and Canucks defenceman Paul Reinhart, had been ranked 10th among North American skaters by Central Scouting. But a good playoff run and an NHL-sized body 6-4 and 206 pounds moved him up.
Reinhart's older brother Max was selected by the Calgary Flames in the third round—64th overall—in 2010. His younger brother Sam, the WHL rookie of the year last season, is draft-eligible in 2014.
The Buffalo Sabres used their 12th overall pick to take Quebec Remparts centre Mikhail Grigorenko, who had been rated third among North American skaters.
The first Canadian forward picked went 16th when Washington took Thomas Wilson of the Plymouth Whalers. Prior to Friday, the lowest a Canadian forward had gone in the draft was seventh overall in 1999 (Kris Beech to the Capitals).
Picking 15th, the Ottawa Senators took defenceman Codi Ceci of the Ottawa 67's. The Calgary Flames used the 21st selection, dropping down in a deal with Buffalo, to take Quebec high school centre Mark Jankowski, while the Vancouver Canucks, picking 26th, took centre Brendan Gaunce of the Belleville Bulls.
Jankowski was ranked 43rd in the final rankings, up from 74th in the mid-term ratings. He chose attending the draft over his school graduation Saturday.
Centre Scott Laughton of the Oshawa Generals, taken 20th by the Philadelphia Flyers, probably left the draft with his ears still ringing. The pro-Penguins crowd booed him as if he had just robbed a nun.
Tampa Bay took Russian goalie Andrei Vasilevski 19th, while Belleville goalie Malcolm Subban, the younger brother of Habs defenceman P.K. Subban, went 24th to the Boston Bruins.
Edmonton Oil Kings centre Henrik Samuelsson, son of former NHLer Ulf Samuelsson, was taken 27th by Phoenix while U.S. under-18 defenceman Stephan Matteau, son of former NHLer Stephane Matteau, went 29th to the New Jersey Devils.
The first round featured players from Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Latvia, Sweden and the U.S.
Rounds two through seven go Saturday
Almost all of those taken at the draft will return to their junior teams for seasoning. Only nine players from last year's draft made their debut in the NHL during the 2011-12 season and six of those were among the first eight players taken.
It's the first draft in Pittsburgh since 1997 when the Boston Bruins picked Joe Thornton first overall. He was followed by Patrick Marleau, Olli Jokinen, Roberto Luongo and Eric Brewer.