TORONTO – Nail Yakupov is heading to Edmonton. For now, it will just be for a quick visit.
But the top-rated prospect in the upcoming NHL draft is hoping that his meeting with Oilers brass this weekend will help convince them to call his name with the No. 1 pick on June 22 in Pittsburgh.
“For me it was great news,” Yakupov said Thursday night. “I’ll probably meet the guys and the president and the GM—just talking with the guys and see the dressing room and see the town.”
It will mark the first ever visit to the Alberta capital for the 18-year-old Russian. He’s due to arrive Sunday after a whirlwind stretch that includes this week’s NHL draft combine in suburban Toronto and a visit to the Stanley Cup final for Saturday’s Game 2 in Newark, N.J., with other prospects.
A source confirmed that Yakupov won’t be the only player brought to Edmonton before the draft for follow-up interviews.
However, unlike in previous years, the Oilers are hoping to keep the meetings as private as possible. Two years ago, both Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin visited the city ahead of the draft and were subjected to large media scrums with local reporters.
The Oilers hold the No. 1 pick for a third consecutive draft and the organization has learned from the previous experiences. Yakupov, a skilled winger from the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting, would love to follow Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins by getting the chance to call Edmonton home.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “Whoever drafts me, I’ll be excited to put this jersey on. I want to work hard for this team and give everything. It’s the NHL.”
The individual visits highlight how important the decision facing the Oilers organization is. Team personnel sat down with Yakupov and all of the other potential top picks during the scouting combine, but still feel the need to spend more time with them before making a final decision.
Another factor in the process is the possibility of a trade. Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini might be enticed to move down a few spots on the draft board, which means he’ll want to be familiar with a number of players.
In the final rankings released by NHL central scouting in April, Yakupov was the top-rated North American-based skater ahead of Everett Silvertips defenceman Ryan Murray, Quebec Remparts centre Mikhail Grigorenko and Sarnia centre Alex Galchenyuk.
Murray ended up getting some extra time to audition after a series of injuries allowed him to play for Canada at the recent IIHF World Hockey Championship. Oilers president Kevin Lowe ran that team and raved about the play of the teenager, who didn’t look at all out of place against men.
It was only after that tournament wrapped up that Murray started to ponder how it might affect his draft position.
“I wasn’t really thinking about that when I was there, I was just thinking about what I can do to help the team win,” he said. “I guess hopefully I impressed somebody.”
Murray acknowledged hearing some rumblings that he might be in the running to be selected with the No. 1 pick, but noted that “it’s not really up to me to decide.”
Even Grigorenko still harbours dreams of being the first player called to the stage at Consol Energy Center. His QMJHL season was marred by a case of mononucleosis and a disappointing performance in the playoffs, but the six-foot-three Russian felt like he put his best foot forward this week in interviews with NHL teams at the combine.
“I still have it,” Grigorenko said, referring to hopes of being selected with the top pick. “For sure, why not? If the team wants to draft me and they need a centre, they’ll take me.”
For now, Yakupov appears to have the inside track.
The affable Russian should certainly have no trouble making a strong impression when he gets a chance to tour Edmonton this weekend. He needed only a few minutes to charm reporters on Thursday, delivering a nice soliloquy that started with him proclaiming that “hockey is my life.”
“You’ve got to smile every day because life you just live once,” said Yakupov. “You’ve got to push everything you can every day and be nice with the people and keep your family in your heart.
“If you can play hockey, just play hockey and do your thing.”