How the Oilers got it wrong from the start with Yakupov

Nail Yakupov spoke with reporters on Monday following confirmation of reports that the Russian forward had requested a trade from Edmonton.

Nine to two.

It was Friday, June 22nd, 2012. The 30 National Hockey League teams were gathered in Pittsburgh for the draft, and the Edmonton Oilers already so adept at collecting the first overall draft pick that they had developed an internal protocol. At the Friday morning meeting of the scouts and front office personnel, then general manager Steve Tambellini would tell the scouts who the team would be choosing later that night.

But that morning proceeded strangely. Head amateur scout Stu MacGregor would ask the scouts to vote, and then he would leave the room. He’d come back with some alternate criteria to describe the type of player the Oilers wanted to choose, and they’d vote again.

Every time, the vote came back the same. Nine votes for defenceman Ryan Murray, and two for Nail Yakupov. Truth be told, one of those Yakupov votes had started as a vote for Alex Galchenyuk, then morphed into support for Yakupov.

With the advice of their on-the-ground scouts tucked away, the Oilers brain trust of the day — Tambellini, president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe, soon-to-be GM Craig MacTavish, and owner Daryl Katz — would meet that afternoon to finalize the decision.

The scouts were, to a man, surprised when that Friday morning meeting ended, and Tambellini did not stand up to declare who the 2012 No. 1 overall draft pick would be. All they knew was that Murray was the overwhelming favourite. One of the Oilers Ontario scouts is believed to have had Yakupov outside his Top 5. The other had him second on the Sarnia Sting — behind his junior teammate Galchenyuk. A European scout was Yakupov’s biggest champion among the scouts.

That evening, dressed in a flat grey suit with a blue striped tie, Tambellini recited the line that every recent GM has come to know so well: “The Edmonton Oilers are so proud to select, from the Sarnia Sting, Nail Yakupov.”

Nine to two.

The names of Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Bure, even the great Valeri Kharlamov were evoked that day in Pittsburgh to describe the expectations for Yakupov. Today, the comparisons have changed markedly: Patrik Stefan, Alexandre Daigle, Greg Joly…

Name your first overall pick that didn’t pan out? That’s where Yakupov is today.

Nine to two.

On Sunday, the Russian newspaper Sport-Express reported that Yakupov had asked Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli for a trade, prior to the February 29 NHL Trading Deadline.

In a tweet, the paper quoted Yakupov as saying, “'I asked a trade and (the) Oilers gave a permission to speak to other teams, about eight of them were interested, but (something) went wrong.”

Chiarelli, who sources indicate has been willing to trade Yakupov for most of this season, would have likely met the trade request with a shrug. Yakupov also said in the story that he has no interest in returning to the KHL, but wants a fresh start on another NHL team.

In a prime example of the difficulty of drafting 18-year-olds, players like Hampus Lindholm, Morgan Rielly and Olli Maatta were all considered high picks in 2012, but nobody had them as potential No. 1s — even though all are more valuable players today than Yakupov, and likely Murray as well.

Sure, Yakupov has suffered from a carousel of coaches in Edmonton, and an organization that only this season has begun to show functionality. But Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins experienced the same dysfunction, and though none are perfect players, they have all far exceeded Yakupov’s development.

The 22-year-old Russian has been most productive when played alongside Connor McDavid, but the line that dogs Yakupov around Edmonton is that he plays the game like he’s being chased by a swarm of bees. It has stuck, mostly because of its accuracy.

“It’s so obvious now,” said a scout, who had cautioned against Yakupov’s hockey sense and foot speed. “Watch him away from the puck — he still doesn’t know where to go. His feet are moving 100 miles an hour, his stick is beating the hell out of the puck, and he doesn’t have a clue where he’s going and what he’s going to do with it.”

So the question begs: With an overwhelming majority, why didn’t Tambellini listen to the very men he employed to guide him on decisions like this one?

That, we may never know.

The decision was borne out of a high level, inner-circle meeting between the GM, Lowe, MacTavish and Katz. Somehow, that group decided that, in a fairly weak draft the sexiest pick — the only possible home run— was Yakupov, who was coming off a 101-point season in Sarnia as a 17-year-old.

One scout said that he doubted Katz would have decreed that Yakupov be chosen, though Katz would have let his opinion be known. Another member of the Oilers party agreed upon that sentiment in 2012.

My knowledge of that inner circle is that they would have discussed the choice and come to a common agreement. The fact is, missing on the best player in the 2012 runs parallel with that group’s strength in player evaluation, post 2006.

The Yakupov draft, and the way it was arrived upon, tells us much about why the Oilers will miss the playoffs for a 10th straight season this spring.

He was supposed to be like Stamkos. Maybe Toronto will take him.

width="100%" Nail Yakupov. (Frank Franklin II/AP)