For the first time since 2004, three Russians were selected in the first round of Friday’s NHL Draft in Pittsburgh. Much speculation was made beforehand as to whether the Edmonton Oilers would trade their first pick having picked first the past two years. Any suspicion was quickly put to rest when GM Steve Tambellini announced 18-year-old Nail Yakupov’s name making him the third Russian to ever be picked first overall in draft history.
The right winger who played two seasons for the OHL’s Sarnia Sting becomes the first Muslim player to be drafted first as he was born in the Republic of Tatarstan. While in Canada, Yakupov scored 170 points in 107 games and has drew comparisons to other Russian players ranging from Valeri Kharlamov to Pavel Bure. Yakupov joins an Oiler team which now has the last three first overall picks and should surely challenge for their first playoff berth since 2006.
11 picks later the Buffalo Sabres selected 18-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko of Khabarovsk who like Yakupov spent the last season in Canada; this time with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. In 59 games Griogorenko scored 40 goals and added 45 assists and was ranked 3rd among North American skaters. Many believe he is NHL ready and perhaps he can bring some of that Khabarovsk skill last seen in Buffalo with Alexander Mogilny.
Rounding out the first round was 17-year-old netminder Andrei Vasilevski, selected 19th by the Tampa Bay Lighting. The Tyumen native got many peoples attention during the 2012 World Junior Championship where he backstopped Russia to the gold medal game. Vailevski finished the tournament ranked second in wins and save-percentage and has been noted for his ability to push-off amongst the one of the best in the draft.
All three first round selections played together in the 2012 WJC and should be reunited for the 4 game exhibition U20 Canada-Russia Challenge in August. In total 12 Russians were selected in this years draft surpassing the number taken last year by 3.