EDMONTON — It was the Year of the Defenceman at the NHL entry draft, but for the third straight year, the Edmonton Oilers focused on the man they believe is the best player, taking Russian forward Nail Yakupov with the No. 1 overall pick.
The swift, skilled five-foot-11, 190-pound winger for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League rated out as the consensus top pick in a middling crop this June.
He’ll fit well with the Oilers’ fleet of freshly minted Ferraris up front in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, along with the likes of Ales Hemsky and Magnus Paajarvi, who also have wheels and soft hands, even if Paajarvi hasn’t completely calibrated his scoring touch just yet.
For general manager Steve Tambellini and the Oilers, this is at once a safe and a risky pick. In a year in which a record eight of the top 10 first-round picks, and 13 of the top 30, were defencemen of all shapes and skill sets, adding yet more flash and speed to the Oilers’ impressive collection of forwards hardly seems inspired thinking.
If the mantra is take the best player at all costs, well Yakupov does seem destined to be a surefire NHL star, so there’s that.
But on a team whose front-end Ferraris are paired with an motley mix of defencemen from the used-car lot, by comparison, the chance to draft a Ryan Murray or a Griffin Reinhart had to have been tempting, if not the better option for a 29th-place club.
Murray, the all-rounder from the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League precocious enough to play well for Canada at this year’s world hockey championship, received considerable attention from the Oilers brain trust.
It’s known that club president Kevin Lowe, a defenceman himself and the first player ever taken in the NHL draft by the Oilers in 1979, was very high on the six-foot-four, 205-pound Reinhart, whose stock in the draft rose as his junior team, the Oil Kings, moved deeper and deeper into the WHL playoffs and on to the Memorial Cup championship.
Lowe was taken 21st and last in the same draft as Paul Reinhart, Griffin’s dad, a draft class that included defencemen Rob Ramage, Craig Hartsburg, Keith Brown, Raymond Bourque and Mike Ramsay, all of them in the top 12.
For Lowe, the younger Reinhart reminded him of Paul, a skilled, savvy, smooth-skating defenceman in all but one respect: Griffin has size, a value-added quality that separated him from most of the elite defencemen available in this draft.
Anyway, Murray went second to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Reinhart went fourth to the New York Islanders. Expect to see Reinhart back with the Oil Kings and playing for Canada at the world junior championship. He just turned 18 in January.
Now, it’s not as if the Oilers have an empty pipeline of prospects on defence. They recently signed Swedish defenceman Oscar Klefbom, who starred for his country at the recent world junior.
Three other Oilers defence prospects — Martin Marincin, David Musil and Martin Gernat — also played at the WJC and have shown great promise in junior. None of them is close to joining the Oilers, although Klefbom may well make the jump in 2013-14.
The Oilers are jostling for position in the free-agent derby to sign puck-moving, power-play quarterbacking defenceman Justin Schultz. He’s the U.S. college star from the University of Wisconsin who has chosen not to sign with the Anaheim Ducks, the team that drafted him 43rd overall in 2008.
The Oilers also have the likes of flashy winger Linus Omark, and perhaps Sam Gagner, to package with other assets to try to upgrade on the back end in the off-season. Free agency might offer some help on defence.
They do have options, which is a good thing, given their highly suspect defence corps.
They also have former head coach Craig MacTavish back on the payroll, as vice-president of hockey operations. Never mind his scouting talent or his administrative magic, I’d get MacTavish back on the ice, schooling Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner, if he sticks around, in the crucial art of winning faceoffs.
The current Oilers can spend great gobs of energy-sapping time chasing the puck and trying to defend in their own zone. With the speed and skill they have upfront, once they manage the often painful process of navigating their way out of their own end, they’ll be dynamite on the rush.
Oh, no doubt about it.
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