After a pair of seasons at the bottom of the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers got lucky in 2012 and won the draft lottery, securing a third consecutive first overall pick in the process. In the lead up to the big event in Pittsburgh, much was made that Edmonton might be looking at someone other than consensus top pick Sarnia Sting winger Nail Yakupov, with many suggesting they would select Everett Silvertips blueliner Ryan Murray (CLB). When the dust settled however, the consensus was accurate and Yakupov is now an Oiler.
The rumors of Murray were well founded in one regard, as he would address a major organizational need. In end though, Head Scout Stu MacGregor and his team opted for the best player available, leaving the task of finding the elusive franchise caliber defenseman to General Manager Steve Tambellini and his braintrust.
The Oilers still managed to address their long-term need at defense when they signed offensive defenseman Justin Schultz, a top prospect out of the University of Wisconsin who had exercised his right to walk away from the Anaheim Ducks and pick his destination.
Nail Yakupov, RW – Sarnia Sting (OHL)
1st round, 1st overall
Height: 5'11 Weight: 190 lbs
Despite having a plethora of elite young forward talent already in the organization and a need on defense at the NHL level, the Oilers did what you need to do with the top pick and take the best player available. Nail Yakupov is an absolute sniper, a rare kind of scoring talent that few teams ever add to their team. He finished one goal shy of 50 in his 16-year-old OHL season, and this past season as a 17-year-old put up 1.64 points per game despite missing time and being hampered by injury.
Yakupov is shifty and quick, boasts incredible on the puck skill, and a hard, quick, accurate shot. He's drawn comparisons to a variety of generational talents, from recently voted Hall of Famer Pavel Bure to Russian legend Valery Kharlamov. In short, he is an electric goal scorer with a ton of flash and more than enough confidence.
If there is a primary concern it is linked to that last point-is Yakupov incredibly confident or overly cocky? It may come down to the eye of the beholder, but there can be no doubt he is a big personality with a lot of swagger who isn't shy of showing off. There have also been minor concerns around his being Russian and the lure of the KHL (which Yakupov has flatly and repeatedly denied as being an enticing option), as well as the fact he suffered a knee injury last season, however his combine performance showed no ill effects from the injury.
Looking forward to the 2012-13 season, there's no reason to think Yakupov won't open the year on the Oilers roster. After putting up more than 100 points as a 16-year-old and dominating when healthy last year he has little left to prove in the OHL. Whether he stays on the right side (currently patrolled by both Eberle and Ales Hemsky) or slides to the left wing to support Taylor Hall remains to be seen, but it would be a shock if he was not on the ice for opening night.
Probably the most contentious pick on draft day amongst Oiler fans, Moroz is a power forward with a scorer's touch who opened the year on the Oil Kings fourth line before climbing to the second line for the playoffs and Memorial Cup run. His numbers are unimpressive, particularly for a second round pick, however playing on the same ice as the Oilers, there were plenty of opportunities for scouts and management to get a long look at him.
Over the course of the draft weekend, size and skill were referred to early and often by Tambellini when discussing team needs, and the selection of Moroz is definitely evidence of that. Expected by most to be a late second to mid third round pick (if not later) taking him with the second pick of the second round was a big surprise, particularly with more famous and arguably more skilled players like Sebastian Collberg (MTL) or Pontus Aberg (NAS) still available at that spot. Much has been made that his stock was rising after the exposure of playing on a Memorial Cup squad, as well as the talk that despite trying to move down in the round the Oilers had no takers. In the end, they got the man they wanted, and from their perspective that's what matters most.
As a player, Moroz is a beast to handle. He showed flashes of offense as the year wore on, and should get a chance to be featured more for the Oil Kings in the upcoming season, but his 131 penalty minutes are clear evidence he doesn't shy away from anyone. The big question mark is whether there is enough offense for him to become more than a depth player at the NHL level.
Jujhar Khaira, LW – Prince George Spruce Kings (BCHL)
3rd round, 63rd overall
Height: 6'3 Weight: 195 lbs
A hulking winger with a unique back story, Khaira will be an interesting pick to follow in the coming years. After going undrafted and generating little to no interest as a 5'5 14-year-old, the Surrey, BC native got a shot with the Spruce Kings, grew nearly nine inches in the following three years and went from undersized forward begging a junior A team to give him a shot to a bona fide NHL prospect. He's lauded for his smarts and his work ethic, both of which were significant in him even getting a chance in northern BC.
In his two seasons with Prince George, Khaira has been physically imposing and offensively dominant, showing flashes of the ever elusive power forward skill set every team (and particularly the Oilers) covet. He's still a project though, the quintessential late bloomer, and he's the first to acknowledge both his skating and his defensive game need more work. Still, he boasts the kind of raw attributes that excite scouts and management alike, leading a number of scouting services to label him as a draft sleeper and player to watch.
He is committed to Michigan Tech for the coming season, but the Everett Silvertips own his junior rights and Khaira has stated he'll do whatever the Oilers feel is best for his development going forward. Early indications from MacGregor are that they'd like to see him continue with his college commitment, however it's still a very fluid situation.
Daniil Zharkov, LW – Belleville Bulls (OHL)
3rd round, 91st overall
Height: 6'3 Weight: 200 lbs
A skilled, confident Russian, who left his home country behind to pursue his dream of a career in North American hockey, there are a number of parallels to be drawn between Zharkov and his new teammate Nail Yakupov. Early in their Oiler careers the two have already become fast friends and Zharkov has openly and repeatedly stated his goal is to be better than Yakupov. It's not likely he'll achieve it, but it's nice he's aiming high.
Zharkov is a different player than the first overall pick, he's big and uses his size well, but isn't overly physical. His skill set is impressive and wide ranging, though he has yet to really put it all together in a way that really knocks anyone's socks off. Numerous scouts would come away from games impressed by him but the statistical evidence hasn't been there to back up what are seen to be high end offensive attributes. This may be due to one of the biggest red flags when it comes to this player, a lack of consistent effort, or it could be due to ongoing adjustment to the North American game and his own size. It can take longer with bigger players, and at the end of the third round he's undoubtedly worth the risk based on the upside alone.
Compared by some to Nik Antropov or Alexei Ponikarovsky, Zharkov will almost certainly have another year or two of OHL hockey ahead of him to iron out some of the issues in his game. Among the question marks that saw him slide later than many expected are inconsistent effort and disinterest in the defensive end. The tools are there, the upside is tantalizing, but there is still a lot of work to do and a ways to go for Zharkov.
Erik Gustafsson, D – Djurgardens (SEL)
4th round, 93rd overall
Height: 6'0 Weight: 176 lbs
An overage, somewhat undersized blueliner, the 20-year-old Gustafsson spent the last season playing against men in the Swedish Elite League, which is impressive in and of itself. He handled himself fairly well in regular minutes, posting seven points in 41 games while going just minus-three on a poor team that was ultimately relegated once all was said and done.
MacGregor views him as a skilled player, offensive with good puck moving ability, and there have been no indications whatsoever that there are plans to bring him over to North America. Barring a trade, he will skate for Djurgardens again in 2012-13, though this time is a lower league, and help the team as they try to gain promotion back to the SEL. A somewhat odd pick, however there is an organizational lack of the puck-moving player type on the back end, so the draft approach isn't entirely unreasonable.
Joey Laleggia, D – Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
5th round, 123rd overall
Height: 5'10 Weight: 180 lbs
Another later round overage pick, Laleggia has been instant offense from the back end for each of the last two seasons. Past over twice (in 2010 and 2011) despite 65 and 82 point seasons in the BCHL with the Penticton Vees, the undersized dynamo heard his name called in 2012 following a 38 point (in 43 games) freshman campaign in Denver. Scoring at near point-per-game pace is impressive for a freshman forward and almost unheard of for a freshman patrolling the blue line.
He slipped through previous drafts and went late this year almost entirely due to his size. He's noticeably smaller than most other players on the ice and his physical game is nearly non-existent. That said offense is one of the most difficult things to generate and acquire at the NHL level, so if he can translate his elite production at the NCAA and pro levels as he progresses, he holds tremendous value.
John McCarron, C – Cornell Big Red (ECAC)
6th round, 153rd overall
Height: 6'3 Weight: 215 lbs
Another overage pick with their final 2012 selection, McCarron is a beast of a man already at 20 years old and a clear draft and follow prospect-MacGregor even said as much saying they will give him plenty of time in college to develop. His stats don't jump off the page, and nothing in the scouting report implies a high ceiling, but he's a big, physical, smart, hard-working forward and the Oilers control his rights for four years giving them ample time to see how well he develops. He did have a much stronger second half offensively, so perhaps there's more to him skill-wise than the numbers indicate, but only time will tell.