The top two picks from last summer’s NHL draft will face off when Ryan Murray’s Western Hockey League team hosts Nail Yakupov’s traveling group of Russians in Game 5 of the Subway Super Series.
There was much debate between Yakupov and Murray in the weeks and months leading up to the last draft. The Edmonton Oilers wound up taking the supremely-skilled Russian ahead of the defensive warrior, who was taken with the next pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
It’s fitting that the two players most likely to have become NHL regulars if not for the lockout will compete head-to-head on Wednesday night.
"(Murray’s) one guy that for sure will face off against Yakupov on a regular basis," Team WHL head coach Don Nachbaur noted Tuesday night.
The series is tied at two wins and six points apiece through four games. Both the Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League teams lost the first meeting of their leg then won the second game.
Nachbaur sees a skilled and dangerous team headlined by Yakupov.
"Size, speed, skill, strength," he described. "They play the game the right way. If you make mistakes, they pounce on those mistakes. Their transition game from defence to offence is real quick, so you have to manage the puck in a proper manner. If you don’t, you pay the price."
Another defenceman whom Yakupov will become acquainted to is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first-round pick, Morgan Rielly. Although known mostly for his puck-handling and skating, Rielly will be counted on to play a sound defensive game and, perhaps most importantly, not put his team in a position where a turnover becomes costly.
"If we get too excited and get trapped up ice or lead the rush and turn it over, we don’t want to leave forwards back there defending their rush," Nachbaur said. "We have to be smart and selective when we do jump forward with the puck or join the rush. But Morgan’s got that ability. We expect him to be reliable defensively and obviously add to our offence."
Yakupov has been fairly quiet in the series. He opened with a goal and one assist in Game 1, but didn’t score again until there was less than a minute remaining in Game 4, a 2-1 win for Team OHL. Nachbaur’s group will play a similar style against the skilled Oilers prospect.
"If you back off him, he’s going to generate speed and if he’s got speed, he’s tough to handle," he said. "I think credit to the Quebec league and the Ontario league. Their teams did great jobs of holding gap on him and not giving him a lot of space and when he did get pucks, they didn’t back off — they went at him. It won’t be any different, our game plan."
The WHL will have a bumper crop of talent for this summer’s NHL draft and among them is Brandon defenceman Ryan Pulock. He will be expected to help out offensively, though in a different way than someone like Rielly.
"Pulock’s got the big shot and for sure we want to utilize that on our power-play," Nachbaur said. "He’s had a great year in the Western Hockey League and this is an opportunity for a lot of kids, not just him, to get on the radar for the national junior camp."
Aside from a few notable rushes, Valeri Nichushkin leaves you wanting more each game — mostly because a prospect as highly-regarded as him isn’t producing the way most expected of him. He has a vacant score line through three games, but is a plus-3.
Laurent Brossoit will get the nod in Game 5 and should go the distance barring injury or performance. The Oil Kings goaltender was a big reason behind his team’s league championship a year ago and one of the primary targets for one of two spots on the Canadian world junior team.
"I think it’s a little early to be saying this guy’s No. 1 or this guy’s No. 2," Nachbaur said. "First step for these kids is to play well in the Subway Series and get to that world junior camp."
Andrei Vasilevski has made many great saves in his three starts, but boasts losses in two games. He was solid in two of his three games and the game plan for Team WHL is a robust, in your face style the league prides itself upon.
"There’s an old saying in hockey if you don’t see the shot, you’re not going to make the save," Team WHL’s head coach said. "Getting pucks to the net with traffic and finding loose pucks and finding rebounds and scoring the ugly goals is one method of scoring."
Murray was named captain of Team WHL for this contest and is a sure bet to wear a letter in representing Canada once again at the world juniors, unless the lockout ends.
"He really is a calm player — he doesn’t get excited," Nachbaur said. "Defensively, he’s as good as we’ve got in the country. I know he was second overall in the draft and there’s reasons for it, but what I think gets overlooked is his defensive skills are outstanding."
One year made a big difference where Maxim Shalunov is concerned. The Blackhawks’ prospect failed to pick up a point in six Subway Super Series games last year, but is tied for the team lead with Yakupov with four points apiece.
Should the game end in regulation, the winner is guaranteed, at worse, an opportunity to win the series in a shootout on Thursday. The series is determined by points and it’s tied at six through four games. If it’s tied after six games, a shootout will dictate the winner of the series.
Nachbaur isn’t looking that far ahead just yet.
"We’re only looking at one game," he said. "Once the game is done, we’ll look at the scenario of the next night. We have to play the right way for 60 minutes and if we do, I think we give ourselves a chance to win."