Nail Yakupov had 31 goals and 69 points in 42 games for Sarnia this season. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
No team has ever held the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft four consecutive years, but don’t bet against the Edmonton Oilers doing just that in 2013. And who knows, perhaps they’ll match the Montreal Canadiens record for Stanley Cups with a string of five No. 1 picks in 2014.
This is not what the NHL could have ever had in mind. Giving the No. 1 overall pick to the worst team – and more recently giving the dregs of the NHL the best chance at winning the lottery – has always been about leveling the playing field. But if the Oilers can keep all the young talent they’ve stockpiled for no other reason than they’ve been bad, it will serve to tilt the ice ridiculously in their favor.
Yes, the Oilers could have an embarrassment of riches thanks to successive first overall picks by 2014, particularly if they stick to their “plan,” which appears to consist of nothing more than stockpiling their organization by being a bottom-three team in the NHL.
Which brings us to the question everyone has been asking since the Oilers won the draft lottery and the No. 1 overall pick for the third straight year: Do they trade the pick, thereby moving down in the draft so they can take a defenseman? The thinking is that with all the talent they have in their forward ranks they should start bolstering their blueline through the draft.
When you have the No. 1 overall pick, you take the best player available, simple as that. There are no sure things in a draft, but the consensus No. 1 prospect is Nail Yakupov, so if you have that pick, you take him. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, you can never, ever have an excess of offensive talent. Ever. The ability to make creative plays, keep possession of the puck and put it into the back of the net are the kinds of attributes of which you can never have too much.
Secondly, with the most rare of exceptions, you never address immediate needs at the draft table. In fact, with the crapshoot the draft is, you’re lucky if you can even hope to address the long-term voids in your roster. Any team that has ever had sustained success in the draft uses it to stockpile as much talent as possible regardless of position. In fact, had the Oilers taken this approach in the 2011 draft, they would have passed on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and taken Adam Larsson, thereby depriving themselves of the probable rookie of the year in favor of a young rearguard who was a healthy scratch in the playoffs.
Now that doesn’t mean Larsson won’t one day prove to be Nugent-Hopkins’ equal as a player. He may very well do that, but the average gestation period for NHL talent to emerge from a defenseman is somewhere between three and five years. And with all due respect to kids such as Ryan Murray, Jacob Trouba, Matt Dumba and Morgan Rielly, there isn’t a defenseman in this year’s draft who will immediately provide the panacea for the Oilers blueline problems. Nobody in that group is any closer to helping the Oilers than top Edmonton prospects Oscar Klefbom or Martin Marincin.
The Oilers would be much better served by taking Yakupov and taking their chances with a group of unrestricted free agents this summer that includes the likes of Michal Roszival, Dennis Wideman, Pavel Kubina, Barret Jackman, Johnny Oduya, Carlo Colaiacovo and Jason Garrison. Of course, that’s easier said than done when you’re talking about the Oilers, but what they have going for them is that this summer is shaping up to be a plentiful one when it comes to defensemen, which means the prices should come down considerably. If that’s the case, all the Oilers will have to do is throw some ridiculous money at one or a couple of them and their chances of getting them will be greatly enhanced.
And there won’t be anything stopping the Oilers from trading some of that young talent to fill the holes in their roster if and when they become a serious contender. There will come a day when the likes of Taylor Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Yakupov, if they take him, will want to be paid commensurate with the top young players in the game. It will not be a matter of the Oilers not being able to afford them, particularly once they move into their new taxpayer-subsidized palace, but it might come down to whether they can keep all of them within the confines of the salary cap. By that time, their value as players might even be higher than it is now and trading one of them might yield a bounty far larger than trading the first overall pick now.
And remember, the last team that had three No. 1 overall picks was the Quebec Nordiques in 1989, ’90 and ’91. Many in the hockey world thought the Nordiques would be a shoo-in for the Stanley Cup with Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan and Eric Lindros in their lineup and they did win it all five years after taking Lindros. The interesting thing was none of the three players was there to hoist the Stanley Cup, but all three were dealt for significant pieces that led the franchise to its Stanley Cups in 1996 and 2001.
The significance that Yakupov has already expressed a desire to be taken first overall by the Oilers should not be discounted. With that kind of young talent, more established players who want the chance to play with those players are sure to follow. That’s how you build a team. You don’t do it by giving up the opportunity to take the best player available.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.