Top pick in NHL entry draft is anyone’s guess


Nail Yakupov

Nail Yakupov

Photograph by: Mike Carroccetto, The Ottawa Citizen

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PITTSBURGH — Hydration became a major concern as the top hockey prospects in the world found themselves literally on the hot seat Thursday. 

The National Hockey League’s annual prospects luncheon took to the water and the prospects were grilled by the media while sitting on the top deck of a riverboat drifting along the Alleghany River. 

As the sun beat down in temperatures hovering around 34 C, there was a sense of excitement among the 13 prospects who are expected to go in the first round of the draft Friday at the Consol Energy Center.

It’s rare to have a draft without a clear-cut No. 1 pick. Nail Yakupov is the closest to that guy this year, but there are a half-dozen mock drafts that have defenceman Ryan Murray, Yakupov’s teammate Alexander Galchenyuk or Swedish forward Filip Forsberg grabbing the No. 1 spot. 

Yakupov, Galchenyuk and Mikhail Grigorenko of the Quebec Remparts have had to face questions about the “Russian factor.” There are fears that they may jump to the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League if things don’t go smoothly in North America or that they aren’t sufficiently motivated.  

Galchenyuk distanced himself from the Russian factor Thursday by reminding questioners that he was born in Milwaukee and has played for the U.S. under-18 team. 

“I feel like I’m an American and I like the way hockey is organized in the U.S.A.,” he said. 

Galchenyuk has followed his hockey-playing dad around the world and speaks Russian, English and Italian. When asked whether he knew any French, he replied: “I used to speak French, but I forgot about it.”

The bigger question for teams looking at Galchenyuk is the knee injury that sidelined him for most of the past season. He said he doesn’t think it should be a concern. 

“It was a very difficult time for me because I was never injured, never missed a game or even a practice. But I worked hard and I came back for the playoffs and I proved it was 100 per cent,” Galchenyuk said. 

While not mentioning any names, the Canadiens brass agreed that there was no concern about the knee. Team physician David Mulder accompanied the Canadiens delegation to the NHL Combine in Toronto and also checked Galchenyuk — and others — at the Canadiens’ combine a few days later.

“It’s not just Galchenyuk; we have a pretty good idea of the health of different players,” Canadiens scouting guru Trevor Timmins said. “Our biggest concern is players who have had concussions and the red flag goes up if they’ve had two or more.”

Grigorenko has been a polarizing figure. He has gone from a top-two prospect on the Central Scouting list to No. 4, while other scouting services have dropped him as low as No. 19.

His critics point to poor performances after he returned from the world junior championship and a disappearing act in the second round of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs. There’s also a conspiracy theory about his birth certificate being changed so that he appears younger than he is, an old charge that Grigorenko said started with jealous rivals in Russia.  

“I injured my ankle at the world championships,” he explained. “Injuries happen in hockey and then I had mono in the playoffs and that happens to other players, too. I don’t care whether I’m No. 1, or 2 and 12. I can’t control what people think. All I can do is wait to see who drafts me and try to make the team.”

Grigorenko said he thinks he can play immediately in the NHL and when he’s asked where he’ll play if he doesn’t make it, he doesn’t hesitate before answering: “I’ll be back with the Remparts.”

While some players like Forsberg concede they may need some more seasoning before playing in the NHL, Red Deer defenceman Mathew Dumba said he feels he’s ready for prime time. The six-foot, 184-pounder has seen his stock rise in recent months.

“I’m ready,” Dumba said. “I know myself and knowing myself, I love to compete and I’ll do anything it takes to get to that next level. Whatever a coach asks me to do, I’ll do it. You have to approach it like an animal. You have to go in there with the confidence that you can’t be stopped.” 

He says he doesn’t think about being a “small” defenceman. 

“The best defencemen in the NHL today are my size — Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Kimmo Timonen, who’s only five-foot-nine, five-foot-10, but he’s so efficient.”

Dumba said most of the prospects here don’t speculate on where they’re headed.

“We’re all looking forward to Friday to see what will happen,” he said. “There’s no sense in thinking about it because anything can happen.”

Montreal Gazette

Nail Yakupov

Nail Yakupov

Photograph by: Mike Carroccetto, The Ottawa Citizen

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