The Edmonton Oilers still have three weeks to decide what to do with the first overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, but one Hall-of-Famer sees an obvious fit in Sarnia winger Nail Yakupov.
Igor Larionov - agent to Yakupov as well as projected top-10 pick Alex Galchenyuk - sees the consensus number-one pick being a key component to the Oilers moving forward, should they take him.
Speaking to TSN Radio 1050's Bryan Hayes, Larionov looked at the Oilers as a team ready to make the next step and being able to contend in the NHL.
“Now they've got to start to make the playoffs and start to play better as a team and be more consistent,” Larionov told Hayes. “I think Nail would be the perfect candidate [for them]. He can get right in the line-up and play hockey with all those young guys.”
The jury is still out on what the Oilers will do with the first pick, but Larionov believes the team has the talent to be a special group, likening them to talented teams of the past.
“It's fun to watch them and it kind of reminds me of the Edmonton Oilers of the early 80s and the Red Army team after Lake Placid,” he said. “There were so many young guys and we were very successful because [we] had hockey sense and skill and speed and desire to be successful.”
The Oilers appear to be considering Yakupov among their many options. Larionov admitted towards the end of the interview that Yakupov was headed to Edmonton on Sunday for a day and a half after this week's NHL Draft Combine is through. He will then head home to prepare for the Draft.
With both his clients expected to go early on in the draft – possibly even both in the top-five – Larionov knows they both have a long summer ahead of them if they wish to follow the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Taylor Hall and Jeff Skinner and take a regular NHL shift as 18-year-olds.
“They realize this is going to be a big challenge for them,” he said. “It's a hard path and it's not an easy road. But if you have the mindset to go to the NHL, you have to be ready right now and have a productive summer of workouts and show up at training camp in the top shape and be hungry to make the team.”
A veteran of 14 NHL seasons and 12 seasons in the Soviet League, Larionov also offered unique perspective on the state of Russian hockey players in the league today.
While the lure of the Kontinental Hockey League has presented an obstacle in getting some Russian players to commit to the NHL in the early part of their careers, Larionov believes the choice is simple if a player wants to play against the best competition.
“It's a situation with the KHL right now because young players can make more money,” Larionov said. “They can stay there but at the same time, [there] is only one league that is the best in the world and that's the National Hockey League.”
Yakupov, who is a native Russian and Galchenyuk, who is American-born but is the son of a former Belarusian national have the added appeal of having played their junior hockey in Ontario with the OHL's Sarnia Sting.
Larionov is trying to prepare both his clients for the long road ahead, regardless of which teams control their rights as of June 22.
“It's very hard sometimes to explain to players [that] if you want to play at the highest level, that's the level you want to be [at]… in the NHL,” Larionov said. “Those two guys – Alex and Nail – they realize that and they're very serious about [putting] in a lot of work this summer and [impressing] the teams that want to pick them in the draft and play in the National Hockey League next year.”