Edmonton, picking No. 1 for the third straight year, grabbed the speedy Russian forward with the top pick on Friday. The Oilers believe the dazzling 18-year-old can join Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins _ the No. 1 picks the previous two years _ in returning the once proud franchise to relevance.
Yakupov certainly thinks they can.
“I think it’s going to be a great team,” he said after becoming the first Russian taken No. 1 since Washington selected Alex Ovechkin in 2004.
Barely an hour after Yakupov donned his blue Edmonton sweater, the draft host Pittsburgh Penguins shook up the proceedings by sending center Jordan Staal to Carolina _ reuniting him with older brother Eric _ for center Brandon Sutter, defenseman Brian Dumoulin and a first-round pick they used to select defenseman Derrick Pouliot.
The 23-year-old Staal, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, provided the backbone that turned the Penguins into perennial Stanley Cup contenders. Now he’s heading south after declining a contract extension.
“We wanted a deal (with Staal),” Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero said. “But it was obvious in the last 24 hours that … this was the right thing to do.”
The Penguins weren’t done, trading defenseman Zbynek Michalek to Phoenix for two players and a third-round pick just after the end of the first round.
The draft continues Saturday, with more fireworks expected.
Yakupov and Staal provided enough on Friday night.
The charismatic Yakupov models his game after former NHL star Pavel Bure, and in a way the youngster already has a leg up on the Russian Rocket. Bure scored 437 goals during his 12-year career, but he wasn’t taken until the sixth round of the 1989 draft.
Yakupov, who spent the last two seasons with the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League, didn’t have to wait nearly as long to hear his name called. The Oilers practically sprinted to the podium to grab a player they believe has plenty of potential.
Yakupov, who scored 31 goals in 42 games last season, is eager for the next step following weeks of speculation.
“It’s not over, it’s just starting,” he said.
Born in the Republic of Tatarstan in Russia, Yakupov has consistently shot down speculation he is going to return to his homeland and play in the Kontinental Hockey League. He stressed repeatedly in the days leading up to the draft that the NHL is “the best league in the world.”
While hardly the biggest player on the ice, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Yakupov has dazzling speed and nimble footwork. He plays with a relentlessness that made him the top player on most draft boards. Yakupov broke Sarnia’s rookie scoring record _ previously held by Steven Stamkos _ in the 2010-11 season when he finished with 49 goals and 101 points.
Yakupov was also a rarity in a top 10 dominated by defense. Other than Sarnia teammate Alex Galchenyuk, who was taken third overall by Montreal, the other eight picks were defensemen.
The Columbus Blue Jackets continued to shore up their blue line by taking Ryan Murray of the Western Hockey League’s Everett Silvertips with the second pick. The 6-foot, 198-pound Murray had nine goals and 22 assists in 46 games last season.
The 18-year-old became the youngest player since Paul Kariya in 1993 to play for Team Canada in the world championships this spring, and his ability to make an impact on both ends of the ice won over the rebuilding Blue Jackets.
“We are very happy to have Ryan Murray join our organization,” general manager Scott Howson said. “He solidifies what we believe is a position of strength. His character and two-way play will be very valuable to our hockey club.”
The prideful Canadiens, coming off a miserable season, hope Galchenyuk can one day provide a needed spark to a lethargic offense. The talented center missed all but two games of this past season after he tore a knee ligament.
Galchenyuk, born in the U.S. to Russian parents, is considered a gifted passer. He totaled 31 goals and 52 assists during the 2010-11 season. He already speaks two languages, and joked that he had better start picking up French.
“I think I have classes starting next week,” he said with a laugh.
With the top high-flying forwards off the board, teams then went heavy on defense in a draft considered short on offensive star power.
The New York Islanders chose defenseman Griffin Reinhart with the fourth pick, starting a run of seven straight defensemen taken.
The Hurricanes had the eighth selection but things changed quickly when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman walked onto the stage and announced a trade the hometown crowd “might want to hear.”
Moments later, Pouliot pulled on a black Pittsburgh jersey.
“Yeah, I was a little surprised,” Pouliot said.
Washington ended the run on defensemen, taking center Filip Forsberg with the No. 11 pick. The 17-year-old Forsberg was the youngest player on Team Sweden at the 2012 World Junior championships. Forsberg said he models his game after former NHL star Peter Forsberg, though the two aren’t related.
The Buffalo Sabres took center Mikhail Grigorenko, who like Yakupov is from Russia, with the No. 12 selection. The massive 6-foot-3, 200-pound Grigorenko led rookies in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in scoring last season, netting 40 goals and adding 45 assists for the Quebec Remparts.
The Staals weren’t the only players who made the draft a family affair. The Boston Bruins chose goalie Malcolm Subban with the No. 24 pick. Subban’s older brother, P.K., is a forward with the Canadians.
Phoenix drafted forward Henrik Samuelsson at No. 27. Samuelsson’s father, Ulf, played 1,080 games in the NHL and won two Stanley Cup titles with Pittsburgh.
The elder Samuelsson received a warm ovation when his face flashed up on the Jumbotron. It likely won’t be the same for former NHL player Stephane Matteau, whose son Stefan was taken by the New Jersey Devils with the 29th pick.
Stephane Matteau, playing for the New York Rangers, eliminated the Devils and rookie goalie Martin Brodeur with a double-overtime goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 1994.
Now his son will try to help the franchise that is coming off a Stanley Cup finals loss to the Los Angeles Kings earlier this month.