PITTSBURGH — Ryan Murray swore he hadn’t leaned on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to find out which way the Edmonton Oilers were leaning.
As for general manager Steve Tambellini, he wasn’t saying whether the Oilers would take Murray, a defenceman, or Russian winger Nail Yakupov with the first pick in Friday’s NHL entry draft.
Tambellini did say that he hadn’t had an offer that was intriguing enough to warrant flipping picks. He did suggest on Thursday that the Oilers’ second-round pick (32nd overall) might be of some interest to a potential trade partner.
The Oilers hold the first pick for the third straight year.
“I’m very comfortable that if it stays as is, we’re going to make our (first) pick,” Tambellini said. “We have an asset coming to this organization who could join Hopkins, (Taylor) Hall, (Jordan) Eberle and (Jeff) Petry.
“There’s going to be a lot of opinions out there and the 30 different teams will probably have 30 different lists. We’re just trying to do what’s best for the Oilers.”
So that leaves the short list. The Oilers scouting staff converged in Pittsburgh earlier in the week and began whittling away at their options. This draft, unlike the previous two, has been described as unpredictable. Many of the prospects were injured during the regular season, affecting their rankings, and there’s not a significant gap between, say, one and two.
Oilers head amateur scout Stu MacGregor indicated earlier in the day they had zeroed in on two players.
Tambellini said the final decision would come down to positional need only if the players were ranked equally — which includes everything from talent to the intangibles, like character.
Yakupov is the dynamic winger who left Russia to play with the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League so that he could get acclimatized quicker to the North American game. He and Murray are the players that Edmonton will focus on.
Murray, who captained the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League, was ranked second behind Yakupov on Central Scouting’s final list of North American skaters.
“I won’t stop playing hockey if I’m second or third. I’m ready (to play) in the NHL,” Yakupov said as he sat perched on a chair on the upper deck of the Empress, which ferried the players and the media for a quick river cruise on a hot, humid Thursday afternoon.
A scowl had crept across his brow when the line of questioning reverted back to Russia. If there was an NHL lockout, would he play in the Kontinental Hockey League? Had he been approached by any of the teams in Russia?
Russian prospects have been asked these questions by NHL teams as well, given that the league does not have a transfer agreement with the KHL. Players like Alexander Radulov are also being pegged as red flags.
Radulov, despite having a contract with the Nashville Predators, signed a deal with Salavat Yulaev in July 2008 and left the NHL until he made his way back in March. He was then suspended for missing curfew during the 2012 playoffs, essentially ending his time with the team.
The Predators elected not to extend Radulov’s contract. He has since been linked to a lucrative deal with CSKA Moscow.
“I want to play in the NHL. I’m only thinking about the NHL,” said Yakupov.
Needless to say, Yakupov, for one, can’t wait until all the preamble is over with. It was a sentiment shared by several of the top prospects.
“It’s been a long wait,” said Murray, who was still being interviewed by some of the teams Thursday. “Now we’re one day away.”
The Oilers brought a few players into Edmonton following the NHL Combine, including Murray and Yakupov. They did not meet with either player in Pittsburgh, nor did they talk again to forwards Mikhail Grigorenko or Alex Galchenyuk.
“I’m hoping I’m in contention, but it’s not in my control. I’ll just be sitting there (Friday). There’s a lot of talent (on the club). I think anybody in this draft would want to go to Edmonton,” said Murray. “But it’s so tough to say what’s going to happen. There are so many rumours out there about trades and teams moving up and down, so the whole draft could completely flip-flop.
“I never tried to look at any draft rankings to not let anything get in my head, but now I’m thinking about it a little bit more.”
Murray has the same agent as Nugent-Hopkins and the Oilers’ prized pick from the 2011 draft will be at the table on Friday in Pittsburgh.
The Oilers won’t have a head coach with the group. Tambellini still hasn’t named a replacement for Tom Renney, something he said he’d get to after the draft.
“This week we’ve talking about a lot of different things, including player movement, and obviously the No. 1 pick,” Tambellini said. “We don’t need to rush anything.”
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