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Top defensive prospect Yakemchuk brings skill, sandpaper to NHL draft


While growing up in Calgary, Carter Yakemchuk cheered for the Edmonton Oilers

"My family's from Fort McMurray, which is in northern Alberta," the Calgary Hitmen defenceman explained. "Both my parents were Oilers fans growing up and I just kind of followed along."

His favourite fan moment growing up?

"When they got Connor McDavid," the 18-year-old said without missing a beat. "That was pretty awesome for the Oilers."

It still is. McDavid has led Edmonton to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final and, despite being on the verge of joining the NHL himself as a projected first-round draft pick, Yakemchuk is still "definitely cheering" for the Oilers. 

"It's super cool," he said. "My whole family are pretty big Oilers fans, so they're all getting excited for the Stanley Cup."

Yakemchuk will be in Las Vegas, site of the draft, on Monday night when the final game of the NHL season is finally played. There's no shortage of places to go on the strip, but Yakemchuk is looking for a quiet spot to watch what he believes will be an historic moment. 

"I think the Oilers are going to take it," he said confidently. 

In fact, Yakemchuk is predicting a 4-2 win with McDavid, who else, netting the game-winning goal. He'll also be keeping a close on Oilers defenceman Evan Bouchard, who he considers his NHL role model. 

"I like the way he carries himself in the offensive zone," Yakemchuk notes. "The plays he makes in the O-zone and being able to find his open teammates all the time. He's got great vision from the top with the way he distributes the puck, and then, obviously, his shot is also really good."

Despite that amazing shot, dubbed the "Bouch Bomb," Bouchard never scored 30 goals in his junior career with the London Knights. He topped out at 25 in the 2017-18 season. 

Meanwhile, Yakemchuk scored 30 goals this season in Calgary, which led all draft-eligible defencemen. It's a big reason why he's No. 12 on TSN Hockey insider Bob McKenzie's most recent list of top prospects, which is based on a poll of scouts. The final list will be released on Tuesday. 

Whatever happens in south Florida on Monday night, it will be an exciting start to an exciting week for Yakemchuk, which will culminate on Friday at the Sphere when the first round of the draft is held.  

During a conversation with TSN, Yakemchuk chose to highlight his defensive improvements and explained how he piled up 120 penalty minutes. The right-handed blueliner also revealed why he feels his interview with his hometown Flames went well at the scouting combine.

The following is an edited transcript of the interview. 

TSN: You're used to cheering for McDavid but, as a defenceman, what would be your approach if you had to try and stop him? 

Yakemchuk: Ah, probably just try and stay in the middle and not let him get to the middle, that'd probably be the biggest thing. 

TSN: I don't know if anyone has an answer to that right now. 

Yakemchuk: Yeah, no idea what I'd do.  

TSN: What are you most proud of when it comes to your season? 

Yakemchuk: Probably getting that 30th goal. That was pretty awesome, and it came in the last game. It was pretty cool. 

TSN: You are the first 18-year-old defenceman to score 30 goals in the WHL this century. When did you start thinking it was possible? 

Yakemchuk: Closer to the end of the season when I started getting closer. I didn't think from the start I was going to reach that goal, but closer to the end some of the guys were just like, 'You're three away from 30, try and get it.'

TSN: What were you thinking going into the last game? 

Yakemchuk: Well, for our team it kind of sucked. We lost out on the playoffs before the game, so we didn't have much to play for, but I tried to get one and got a bounce. Lots of the guys were pretty pumped up for me, so it was great. 

TSN: Where did your game improve the most this season? 

Yakemchuk: My defensive side of the game took a big step this year. That was the focus for me coming into the season and I think that was something I improved on throughout the year. I think just with better positioning in the D-zone, being able to find my guys better, like, staying on my guys, staying on top of them and not making it easy to play against me. 

TSN: How did you improve? 

Yakemchuk: It was lots of video on positioning. Also, my coaches kept telling me to play harder and use my body to my advantage and play hard in the D-zone. 

TSN: Considering the 120 penalty minutes this season, it doesn't seem like it was very easy to play against you. You only had 31 penalty minutes the previous season. What got into you? 

Yakemchuk: I don't know. There were a couple fights, and then sometimes the emotions ran pretty high, and I took a penalty. But, yeah, it was quite a few. 

TSN: Do you take pride in that or is it something you need to get under control? 

Yakemchuk: A little bit of both. Gotta rein it in, definitely, for sure. There are probably some undisciplined ones. But I'd say I play the game pretty hard and sometimes it just happens, and you take a penalty. 

TSN: You had 16 roughing minors. Where does your grit come from?

Yakemchuk: My dad. He used to play in the junior A league in Alberta and he was a fighter, so I probably get it from him. 

TSN: What feedback did you get from him this season? 

Yakemchuk: He was telling me not to fight. He didn't want me to do that, but when it happened I don't think he was too mad about it, though. 

TSN: You had five fights this season. How comfortable are you when the gloves come off? 

Yakemchuk: It's not something I look for in a game, but if it happens I'm not going to shy away from that side. Yeah, if it happens it happens.  

TSN: What's the best advice you got from your dad on fighting?

Yakemchuk: [To] protect myself. That was his biggest thing. 'Don't try to start swinging like crazy or else you'll take one on the chin.'

TSN: We talked about your defensive play, penalty minutes and fighting, but the offensive side really stands out. You put up 71 points in 66 games. Where does your creativity come from? 

Yakemchuk: It's kind of just something I've always had in my game. I'm not afraid to make some plays in the offensive zone. 

TSN: What goal that you scored this season had the greatest degree of difficulty? 

Yakemchuk: There was one in Regina where I took it off the wall, I was pretty far out and I took a backhander, and I didn't think it was going to go in and it ended up sneaking in. Happy with that one. I just threw it on net and, honestly, I didn't think it was going to go in. I was so far away. I think the goalie was screened a bit.

TSN: What are you focused on improving this summer? 

Yakemchuk: My skating. That's something that I've really been trying to work on, and I'll keep it going throughout the summer. I want to get lower in my stride. I think that's one thing. And then, overall, just increase the power in my legs to get faster. 

TSN: You're 6-foot-3, 200 pounds already. Are you still figuring out how to maximize your size? 

Yakemchuk: My growth has been kind of steady throughout everything. I don't think there was a major growth spurt I had to work with. So, I'm lucky that I just gradually got taller. 

TSN: Are you still growing? 

Yakemchuk: I think I definitely can get a little bit taller. 

TSN: Teams must've liked hearing that at the combine. 

Yakemchuk: Yeah. 

TSN: You came in No. 12 on Bob McKenzie's latest consensus ranking of top prospects, but you also got a couple votes from scouts in the top five. Any sense when you'll get picked?

Yakemchuk:  I'm not too sure. Whatever happens on the day of the draft will be awesome.  

TSN: With the Flames at No. 9, have you thought about what it would be like to get picked by your hometown team?

Yakemchuk: All my friends are Flames fans, so that would be pretty cool. 

TSN: How did the interview with the Flames go at the combine?

Yakemchuk: It went really well. One of my Hitmen mental [coaches] Matt Brown was in there and it made me more comfortable. I thought it went really well. He works on the mental side of the game for the Hitmen and Flames. I didn't know he would be there, so it was kind of nice to see a familiar face in the interview. 

TSN: How would you describe your personality off the ice? 

Yakemchuk: More of a quieter or shy kid. It takes me a little bit to break into my comfort zone, but once I get comfortable I'm a pretty outgoing person. 

TSN: Considering that, what was it like at the combine when you had 23 interviews in just a few days? 

Yakemchuk: It was pretty nerve-racking, pretty stressful, but all of them went pretty well so I was pretty happy with it. 

TSN: What was the toughest question? 

Yakemchuk: Colorado asked how I would beat Cale Makar 1-on-1 and how I would defend Nathan MacKinnon

TSN: What did you say? First on MacKinnon. 

Yakemchuk: It would probably be the same as McDavid, I wouldn't really know how, so just try and stay in the middle and hope that works the best. I said on Makar, I would try to keep the puck away from him and take it wide on him. 

TSN: The NHL gives prospects the option of selecting a walk-up song for when they get drafted. What did you pick? 

Yakemchuk: Ah, I forget what song I picked. I'm a country fan, but I filled it out with a guy from my team and he gave me some ideas. I forget which one I put on there. Hopefully it's good.