All eyes will be on Steve Tambellini.
The scouts haven’t been able to decide between Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin this season but the general manager of the Edmonton Oilers is going to have to when the first round of the NHL draft is held Friday night in Los Angeles.
Tambellini doesn’t plan on making up his mind until just hours before stepping on the stage at Staples Center. He wants to be absolutely certain that he makes a move that will help turn the fortunes of the franchise.
“It’s such an important step for us to have the ability to take the first overall pick, especially where we are with our cycle of development,” Tambellini said after winning the draft lottery. “We’re more into a reshaping, a rebuilding mode right now. Everybody’s clear about that. This will be a wonderful building block to add on to some of the other draft choices we have in place now.
“(I’m) very, very excited for us and the city of Edmonton.”
Tambellini has given no indication that he’s interested in trading the selection, saying only that he’d politely listen to offers because it’s his job.
Barring something unforeseen, he’s almost certain to make the first ever No. 1 selection in Oilers history—choosing between two players that are both considered ready to jump straight into the NHL.
Hall and Seguin have each made a visit to Edmonton in recent weeks and both say they love the idea of playing in a Canadian city. It’s been a refreshing change for Oilers fans who have watched free agents spurn the team in recent years because they were unwilling to move to the Alberta capital.
The impending arrival of a highly coveted young player has sent a surge of excitement through a city that saw its team stumble to 30th place in the standings. Many see this draft as a turning point.
“This is a huge opportunity for this organization going forward,” said Tambellini. “I think it perfectly fits the moment of where we are as a hockey team (and) as an organization.”
The Oilers are already making moves. Pat Quinn was shifted from coach to adviser Tuesday, with associate coach Tom Renney taking over behind the bench.
Hall and Seguin have been compared all season, when they tied for the Ontario Hockey League scoring lead with 106 points. They each took a turn at No. 1 in rankings by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau, with Seguin finishing atop final list.
However, one scout recently told The Canadian Press that the Oilers would be “crazy” not to take Hall because of his pedigree. He was twice named MVP at the Memorial Cup while capturing back-to-back championships with the Windsor Spitfires.
Much of the debate between the top prospects has surrounded the position they play—Seguin at centre for the Plymouth Whalers and Hall on the wing in Windsor. Even though the Oilers seem to have a more pressing need at centre, the scout said it would be foolish to draft based on the current roster.
He figures a top prospect needs two or three years of seasoning before turning into an impact player and expects the team’s personnel to change over that time.
The man most interested in seeing what the Oilers decide is Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, who holds the No. 2 selection. He has a preference between Hall and Seguin but doesn’t control his own destiny.
“I would say, right now as of today, we have one guy over the other,” Chiarelli said this week on a conference call. “It’s very, very close.”
Beyond the Big Two, there are plenty of other intriguing prospects in a fairly deep draft class. Defencemen Eric Gudbranson, Cam Fowler and Brandon Gormley were ranked Nos. 4-6 among North American skaters while Finnish centre Mikael Granlund is the top-rated European after a successful season in his country’s top pro league.
There are also some skilled Russian players for teams willing to take the risk. Very few players from that country have been selected in recent years because of the absence of a transfer agreement but one scout thinks forwards Kirill Kabanov, Alexander Burmistrov and Vladimir Tarasenko are among the most talented players in this draft class.
After Edmonton kicks off the draft, only three other Canadian teams will make selections in the first round—Ottawa (No. 16), Vancouver (No. 25) and Montreal (No. 27).
Toronto and Calgary will each have to wait until Saturday before stepping to the podium. The Leafs’ first-round pick belongs to Boston thanks to the Phil Kessel deal while Calgary’s opening-round pick is in the hands of the Phoenix Coyotes via the Olli Jokinen trade.
Of course, the draft order could change with a trade. There have already been a couple of big deals completed this off-season and many expect a lot more to be made before the free agency period opens on July 1.
“I’ve noticed there is significantly more talk (in the) last week than I’m used to in my years in management,” said Chiarelli, who acquired Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell from Florida on Tuesday. “There’s more activity. It may be you don’t get these draft-day blockbuster deals, but I think you’re going to see more deals this week.”
It will also be a week where the Taylor versus Tyler debate can finally be put to rest.
The uncertainty hasn’t seemed to bother the players much. They both know it won’t be a long wait before hearing their name called on Friday night.
“I won’t be waiting a whole heck of a time,” Hall said during his visit to Edmonton. “When I hear, ‘The Edmonton Oilers select …’ and when I hear the team, either the Windsor Spitfires or the Plymouth Whalers, then I’ll know where my hockey lies and that’ll be exciting.
“I feel for my family the most. I know it’s odd, but I’ll just be sitting there and they’ll be the ones biting the nails and crying.”
Many of the players who have been selected No. 1 in recent years have helped turn around struggling franchises. Marc-Andre Fleury (2003) and Sidney Crosby (2005) brought a Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh; Patrick Kane (2007) scored the overtime winner earlier this month to deliver a championship to Chicago; Alex Ovechkin (2004) single-handedly turned the Washington Capitals into one of the league’s glamour teams; and Steven Stamkos (2008) has brought hope to the Tampa Bay Lightning after scoring 51 goals in just his second season.
Tambellini can’t help but look at that group and smile at the prospect of what he may be getting.
“Where else can you attain those high-impact players?” said Tambellini. “If you look historically at the top end of the draft, those are players (where) you can argue who’s better from year to year, but most of them are impact players that play in the NHL for a long time.
“(At No. 1), you know you’re going to get a good player and it’s very important in this (salary-cap) system.”