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.
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.