On June 22, Pittsburgh was flooded with hockey analysts and general mangers when commissioner Gary Bettman was booed up to the podium at the Console Energy Center. He cleared his throat before announcing who the Edmonton Oilers had selected with the first overall pick (the third straight year they’ve had that pick) in the NHL Draft.
To the surprise of no one, Nail Yakupov’s name lit up the first spot on the NHL’s new LED draft board behind Bettman. By the time draft day came around, the Sarnia Sting’s prized winger was sitting alone on top of every prospect ranking in the world. This once-in-a-lifetime player became the fifth OHL player in 15 years to tally at least 100 points in his rookie season.
At 5’11”, he is by no means the biggest winger in the draft, but Yakupov can hold the puck as strong as Zdeno Chara while skating twice as fast. His repertoire of one-on-one moves undresses defenders every time he skates past the blue line. Goalies rarely have a chance to imagine what move Russia’s top prospect will pull before inevitably knocking their water bottle off the top of the net.
Yakupov’s passing ability is comparable to Claude Giroux, and although he scores nearly as many goals as he sets up, the stats always favor assists. He has steadily become a more balanced forward since entering the OHL two years ago and averages more than 1.5 points per game. Unlike most wingers with exceptional playmaking skill, the 18-year-old plays a strong defensive game and has no problem initiating contact.
The reason he has been deemed the next Sidney Crosby isn’t just because of his remarkable talent, but his maturity as a hockey player. Whenever he is on the ice he is always in the right position to make game-changing plays and his patience with the puck is better than some of the NHL’s veterans. Yakupov began rookie development camp at Rexall Place in Edmonton yesterday and will be expected to play in the NHL along side former first overall picks Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall.
It isn’t time to compare these Oilers with the Gretzky-led dynasty that owned hockey in the ‘80s just yet. But with Yakupov adding to their young core of offensively gifted forwards, the Oilers are definitely on the rise in a Western Conference where a shift in power is just over the horizon.