PITTSBURGH — The Edmonton Oilers, debating between dynamic winger Nail Yakupov and defenceman Ryan Murray, who would have helped bolster their blue line, took the creative goal scorer.
Yakupov, only the third Russian to be selected first overall, follows countrymen Alex Ovechkin (Washington, 2004) and Ilya Kovalchuk (Atlanta, 2001) to the record book and follows fellow No. 1s Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins onto the Oilers roster.
The Oilers selected Hall with the first pick overall in 2010 and Nugent-Hopkins last June. Now they have Yakupov, who has been compared to Pavel Bure, a player the draft pick admired. Still, he wants to etch out his own identity — and he may have the tools to do it.
The five-foot-11, 185-pound right-winger registered 31 goals and 38 assists in 42 regular-season games with the Sarnia Sting in 2011-12 and put up 101 points in 65 gamed the year before that. He left his hometown of Nizhnekamsk, located about 500 miles east of Moscow, and settled into the Ontario Hockey League in order to ready himself for the NHL.
"I have lots of time to get ready to try to make the team. I'm ready for the NHL," he said. "And it's a great team. A young team. I saw them play in Detroit. They're young but they played good. I think it's going to be a great team — plus me, maybe."
Yakupov held down the No. 1 ranking all season, but the gap closed when his season was abbreviated by a knee injury he sustained in Russia's gold-medal game at the 2012 world junior championships.
"We've talked about having elite skill in our organization and he's hungry to perform, he's hungry to score. He's an emotional player, an explosive player so for us to think of what that's going to look like with Hopkins, Hall, (Jordan) Eberle, (Magnus) Paajarvi, (Ales) Hemsky . . . it's exciting," said Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini.
The Oilers still need help on the blue line, but by taking Yakupov and not Murray, it may assist the club in landing impending free agent Justin Schultz on July 1.
Schultz, drafted by the Anaheim Ducks, has said he won't sign with the club by Sunday's deadline and will instead explore the free-agent market now that he has declared his intention to leave the University of Wisconsin. Teams can court him on July 1 and the Oilers will be among the suitors.
One of Schultz's requirements is that he gets prime playing time, something Edmonton can dangle — along with some young talent up front.
"(Yakupov) had no hesitation telling me he was a No. 1 pick," said Tambellini. "I love the confidence. With that comes the courage to back it up and I don't think he lacks any courage in his ability that's for sure."
"Yeah, I was nervous," said Yakupov, who was at the draft with his parents, his uncle and his first coach. "But there's no pressure now. I feel great now.
"Two years ago, I wasn't thinking about the NHL, but now I'm excited."
Two years ago, Yakupov, 16 years old at the time, left his hometown and headed to the OHL.
"One of the things that really impressed me was that whenever I saw him get in all alone on a goaltender is that he didn't miss. He put it in," said Stu MacGregor, the Oilers' head amateur scout. "He has the potential to score 30 goals. Maybe more. You can't win games without scoring goals."
After selecting Yakupov, the Oilers were trying to move up but couldn't pull off a deal, nor was any serious consideration to moving the No. 1 pick.
"There are still a lot of things that need to be done," said Tambellini. "We know that if we can we're going to add another depth defenceman to the big club. You can't rest and say because you've had a great selection in the draft that your team is going to take a major step just because this young player is coming to your organization.
"Where we do need to get better is to have that heaviness, and not just from a physicality standpoint but the heaviness of being able to play with our top-six or top-nine players. We need some of that in our organization. Usually players that are strong, that skilled, you have to draft and we're looking for that.
"There was a lot of discussion but at the end of the day you have to make a decision and we made one that we know is going to be exciting. I can't wait to see him play with some of our skilled people."
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Neil Yakupov (C), first overall pick by the Edmonton Oilers, poses onstage with Oilers team representatives during Round One of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft at Consol Energy Center on June 22, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Photograph by: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images