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McKenzie: Yakupov still clear No. 1 choice atop rankings

Bob McKenzie
2/7/2012 8:51:20 PM
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The 2012 NHL Entry Draft will be many things to many people, but let's start by branding it as this: unusual.

It's not every day that the top two prospects are both Russian, but that is indeed the case on TSN's Mid-Season Top 40 Prospects for this year's draft.

Sarnia Sting winger Nail Yakupov is the clear choice as No. 1 at this point, getting the vote of 9 of 10 NHL team scouts surveyed by TSN.

"It's Yakupov and everyone else," one scout told TSN. "We always talk about where there's a drop-off in talent in the first round. Well, this year's it after No. 1."

Yakupov's countryman Mikhail Grigorenko, the big centre of the Quebec Remparts, is solidly slotted as No. 2.

Of the nine scouts who chose Yakupov No. 1, only a few of them suggested Grigorenko could mount a serious challenge for the top spot. But there was the lone scout of 10 who had Grigorenko at No. 1, ahead of Yakupov.

"This kid (Grigorenko) could be Evgeny Malkin," the scout said. "It's not out of the question."

It's too early to predict what may happen in the NHL draft in Pittsburgh on June 22 – we don't yet know the clubs' order of selection and/or what individual team preferences may skew the final decision-making – but the TSN survey leaves no doubt as to the two Russian whiz kids being at the head of the class.

If Yakupov and Grigorenko were to go one-two on draft day, it would reprise the 2004 NHL draft when Washington took Alexander Ovechkin first overall and the Pittsburgh Penguins made Malkin the second selection.

The similarities between 2012 and 2004 are striking.

Yakupov, like Ovechkin, is a dynamic, game-breaking goal-scoring winger who isn't afraid to get physical or get his nose dirty going to the hard areas to put the puck in the net.

Grigorenko is a big, offensively-gifted playmaking and goal-scoring centre who shares many of the same traits as Malkin.

In 2004, Ovechkin was the clear consensus as No. 1, just like Yakupov, while Malkin, like Grigorenko, was No. 2. But in the intervening years, some would now argue that Malkin, the big centre, has eclipsed Ovechkin, the scoring winger, in the world of NHL superstars and that perhaps Grigorenko may one day do the same to Yakupov.

It's all very intriguing, all the more so when you consider the "Russian Factor." The Russian Factor has recently applied to Russian-born and -trained first rounders who end up being selected lower than their talent or skills would normally dictate because there are fears – sometimes real, sometimes imagined – that the Russian player has a safety net in the KHL that allows them an option to leave the NHL and North America if they don't like how things are panning out.

In recent years, the Russian Factor likely allowed the St. Louis Blues to draft Vladimir Tarasenko 16th overall and the Washington Capitals to take Evgeny Kuzentsov 26th overall in the 2010 draft.

In 2007, the New York Rangers were able to draft Alexei Cherepanov 17th overall, although the gifted Russian forward died tragically during a KHL game the year before he was scheduled to join the Rangers.

Often times, Russian players who choose to play in the Canadian Hockey League – like Florida Panther Dmitry Kulikov, drafted 14th overall in 2009 – rather than stay in Russia will minimize the effects of the Russian factor, but former Quebec Rempart start Alexander Radulov, who bolted the Nashville Predators for the KHL with a year remaining on his NHL contract, has flown in the face of that logic.

There's another wrinkle this year that could affect the talented Russian duo of Yakupov and Grigorenko.

In theory, when a team is picking first or second overall, the last consideration a team will make is to draft by position, but there are some unique circumstances to consider.

Columbus is the odds-on favorite to have the first overall pick – pending the outcome of the draft lottery, of course – and the Blue Jackets' No. 1 positional need is a big playmaking centre to put alongside scoring winger Rick Nash, who has never really an elite running mate in Ohio. Would the Blue Jackets, if like many teams they have Yakupov as No. 1, consider taking Grigorenko based on the position he plays?

And how would the drafting of any Russian play in Columbus, where 2003 first rounder Nikolai Zherdev and 2008 first-rounder Nikita Filatov were effectively draft busts?

Likewise, if the Edmonton Oilers, for example, with a bevy of young stars up front (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle) are picking first or second, would they take one of the Russian stars or look past them for a defenceman, of which there are many to choose from in this draft.

There are a lot of variables in this year's draft that could make it quite unpredictable.

Outside of the Russian angle, there are many other newsworthy storylines, including:

- A heavy emphasis on defencemen. No one has suggested 2012's first round will be as bountiful for blueliners as 2008, when the defencemen taken in the first round included: Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo, Luke Schenn, Tyler Myers, Colton Teubert, Erik Karlsson, Jake Gardiner, Luca Sbisa, Michael Del Zotto, Tyler Cuma, and John Carlson.

But this group is pretty impressive: Everett Silvertip all-around defenceman Ryan Murray, at No. 3 on TSN's mid-season list, Red Deer Rebel thumper Matt Dumba, at No. 5, the U.S. Under-18 team's big and mobile defender Jacob Trouba at No. 6, top offensive defenceman Morgan Rielly of the Moose Jaw Warriors at No. 8, big Edmonton Oil King Griffin Reinhart, at No. 9, Ottawa 67 Cody Ceci at No. 12, Finn Olli Maatta of the London Knights at No. 14, Peterborough Pete Slater Koekkoek at No. 15, Portland Winter Hawk Derrick Pouliot at No. 17…that is 9 of the top 17 players playing on the blueline and a veritable cornucopia of different style defencemen.

- Injuries. No one can recall a year where so many of the draft-eligible players have suffered so many injuries and of such a serious nature.

Sarnia centre Alex Galchenyuk, the American of Russian descent, was supposed to be Yakupov's running mate all season but hasn't played a single game in the OHL yet this season because he tore up his ACL in the pre-season and underwent knee reconstruction on Oct. 27. And yet scouts still tabbed him as No. 7 on the mid-term list. Or Moose Jaw defender Rielly, who early in the Western League season tore up his knee, undergoing ACL surgery on Nov. 6. Yet, like Galchenyuk, NHL scouts surveyed by TSN thought enough of him to rank him No. 8. Peterborough's Koekkoek, ranked No. 15, had his season end with shoulder surgery.

"The X-rays, MRI's and CT scans will be more valuable this year than any year I can remember," one scout told TSN. "We saw enough of many of these guys last season or at the U-18 tournies last spring and summer to get a real good idea of what they're capable of, but you have to be sure it's not an injury that is going to prevent them from developing, that they're going to get back to 100 per cent. There's certainly some risk involved. It's one more thing to factor into the decision making process."

- Multiculturalism at its finest. Seven countries are represented in TSN's Mid-Season Top 30, including Latvia, who will see Dubuque Fighting Saints captain Zemgus Girgensons, No. 11 on the TSN list, likely go high in the first round on draft day. There is a strong three-man contingent from the Czech Republic, with Kitchener centre Radek Faksa at No. 10, Czech League forward Tomas Hertl at No. 23 and Halifax forward Martin Frk at No. 24. Sweden also has three forwards in our first round, including big centre Filip Forsberg at No. 4 and Sebastien Collberg and Pontus Aberg at Nos. 16 and 20, respectively. The Americans have four in the Top 30, including No. 6 Trouba, No. 7 Galchenyuk, No. 21 defenceman Brady Skjei (pronounced Shea) and No. 25 forward Stefan Matteau.

- A scarcity of high-end Canadian forwards. Fourteen of the 30 ranked players on the mid-season list are Canadians, but the highest-ranked forward from Canada is Belleville Bull centre Brendan Gaunce, at No. 13. If a Canadian forward fails to be taken in the top 10 overall – a possibility – it would mark the first time ever Canada did not have a top 10 drafted forward. The latest the first Canadian forward has ever been drafted was seventh overall in 1999, when the Washington Capitals took Kris Beech. There are only two Canadian forwards – Gaunce and Plymouth hard rock winger Tom Wilson at No. 20 – in TSN's mid-season top 20.

Perhaps it was bound to happen sooner or later, after Canadian forwards being selected first overall in the last four drafts: Nugent-Hopkins, Hall, John Tavares and Steven Stamkos. So it's easier to write off this year's dearth as an aberration and focus on the fact that seven of the nine defencemen ranked in the top 17 picks are Canadian.

- Goalies galore. There haven't been any goalies drafted in the first round in two of the last three drafts, but there could be two or three in the first round this year alone.

That is likely to change this year. Russian netminder Andrei Vasilevski, who shone at the 2012 World Junior Championship, is No. 18 on our list and Belleville Bull Malcolm Subban, the younger brother of Montreal defenceman P.K. Subban, is No. 22. Both have a legitimate shot at being first rounders, as does Swedish product Oscar Dansk, who checks in at No. 33 on the list. Multiple other goalies received some first-round consideration as well, so by all accounts, this year's goaltending crop is stronger than in recent memory.

Finally, a word about how these rankings were arrived at.

TSN surveyed 10 NHL team scouts to get their personal rankings for the draft eligible players. This information was used to create a consensus ranking of where that player fits or is likely to be taken if the NHL entry draft were being held today. It's important to note there's plenty of time left in the season and significant fluctuations between now and the draft in June are not only possible, but quite likely.

This year's TSN Mid-Season list features 40 players ranked numerically with five honorable mentions.

Bob McKenzie

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