Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Cross Checks [Print without images]

Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Debate: Bad year to have No. 1 draft pick?

By Scott Burnside and Craig Custance

BURNSIDE: It may not be the most compelling television event ever, but the annual draft lottery, the glorified bingo game that decides which of the NHL’s bottom-feeding, underachieving teams will draft first and so on in June’s draft, has the potential to be a franchise-altering moment.

Well, in some years, that is. Unfortunately for the Edmonton Oilers, who shocked the last-place Columbus Blue Jackets by jumping ahead of them in the lottery to gain their third straight first overall pick, this doesn’t appear to be one of those years. This may actually end up working in favor of Columbus as well as the Oilers, who took Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with the past two first picks but may take advantage of an odd draft class to start beefing up what is a paper-thin blue line. Many of the scouts and team executives that you (Craig Custance), our colleague Pierre LeBrun and I spoke to leading up to the lottery seemed to agree on one thing: There is no consensus on who should be the first overall pick. The NHL’s Central Scouting group has Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League locked into the No. 1 spot, but there is plenty of discord about whether he’s the guy anyone should be taking with the first pick.

“It may be one of those years when winning the lottery maybe actually makes your life more difficult,” one NHL executive told me.

There is no denying Yakupov’s talent, but this exec wondered whether he is a player who might benefit from not having all of the pressure of being a No. 1 pick.

“He has the physical attributes to play in the NHL. But is he ready for the expectations? He might actually be better going to an established team,” he said.

Edmonton GM Steve Tambellini didn’t tip his hand when asked about his team’s possible strategy come June in Pittsburgh, but one thing’s for sure: Regardless of whom the Oilers end up selecting, they hope this is the third and last No. 1 pick they see for a long time.

CUSTANCE: Tambellini's reaction was priceless. There wasn't a big celebration, just a smile and almost sheepish shake of the head, and the Oilers are picking No. 1 again. And while there's some consensus that Yakupov will be the guy, you're right, this isn't necessarily a franchise changer.

"It's not a great year to be first overall," said one amateur scout. "You want to get Crosby or Ovechkin. It doesn't look like those players are there."

The top of the draft is forward-heavy, which doesn't exactly help the Oilers either. They'd love to add a franchise defenseman to their impressive crop of young stars up front, but I don't know if you can take Ryan Murray with that first overall pick. Maybe this should be the year the Oilers trade out of that top spot.

BURNSIDE: If the Oilers do decide to see if they can peddle the top pick, one assumes it would be to move down and gather more picks for a draft that one scout said has a number of hidden gems that could turn out to be significant NHL assets. And doesn’t it make sense that the Oilers start to invest in the foundation of their team at the other end of the ice now? LeBrun spoke to a top scout about some of the defensemen turning heads.

On Griffin Reinhart from Edmonton of the WHL and Cody Ceci of Ottawa in the OHL: “Those are the two big puck-moving D-men that people like in this draft. Not a bad combination of skill and size with those two."

On Matt Finn, another OHL prospect from Guelph: "He really came on in the second half of the year. Another good puck-moving D-man from this draft class."

On Ryan Murray of Everett in the Western Hockey League, the second-ranked skater overall in North America by Central Scouting: "He’s been scrutinized for so long that people are looking for things that are wrong with him. But in fact, he could be the steadiest and safest pick in this draft. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. But other scouts will look at other players in this draft and see more upside in them."

And finally, on Jacob Trouba, who’s with the USA Hockey Under-18 program: "He’s a big U.S. kid. Generally the top defensemen in this draft are puck-moving D. Trouba could be the variable. He’s the more physical player than those puck-movers. He’s got the size. Should be a good player."

Lots to choose from if the Oilers decide to go that way. And lots left over for teams looking to shore up the future of their back end.

CUSTANCE: My first reaction was to feel sorry for the Blue Jackets, who can't buy a break this season. But this may end up working out just fine for Scott Howson. Had they landed that No. 1 overall pick and he decided he didn't want Yakupov, can you imagine the reaction if he had a draft weekend in which he traded both Rick Nash and the No. 1 overall pick? There's been so much speculation as to whether or not the Blue Jackets would want to select another Russian, now Howson has less pressure sitting at No. 2. The player I really like there is Swedish forward Filip Forsberg.

"He plays with great drive," said one scout who recently saw him in Sweden. "When you give him the puck inside the red line he has that drive to get to the net. He goes through people to get to the net."

Mikhail Grigorenko will get a long look there, but this scout said he'd lean heavily in Forsberg's direction.

"I would be willing to bet he'll be better than Grigorenko," he said. "I'd be willing to bet on that."

BURNSIDE: Howson has insisted that he wouldn’t stay away from a Russian player in spite of having previous top picks Nikita Filatov (sixth overall in 2008) and Nikolai Zherdev (fourth overall in 2003 before Howson arrived) turn out to be massive busts. If the Oilers take Yakupov, part of the decision will be made for Howson. But if the Oilers decide to go with one of the five or six top-end defensemen expected to go in the top 10 in the draft, the Blue Jackets will be back to square one, as it were. One top executive wondered aloud at how many times have the Blue Jackets had a chance to draft foundation players and consistently failed to do so.

"They’ve got to be nervous,” he said.

“It’s going to be so interesting to see how they manage their affairs in the next couple of years.”

Also interesting will be how the other three teams in the top five -- Montreal, the New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs -- approach what will be important drafts for them. This is especially true of the Leafs, who just took out ads apologizing for their dismal season, and whose GM, Brian Burke, promised massive changes to the roster in the offseason.

Hard to imagine Montreal and Toronto won’t be looking to nab a top-end forward with those picks, although the Islanders, like the Oilers, need to start filling in on the back end given the make-up of their team.

Another scout LeBrun spoke to likened the other big Russian, Mikhail Grigorenko, to Evgeni Malkin. Sort of. "Grigorenko would be the Malkin style. Good size, good range, more of a control-the-puck type of guy, and can dish it. His potential is Malkin, if he hits full stride. But obviously there’s certainly no guarantee of that."

CUSTANCE: I know you're in Pittsburgh right now for that fantastic Penguins-Flyers series, but you might as well start looking into some local real estate there. The Penguins could be on the verge of a long playoff run and the draft in Pittsburgh should be an exciting event that starts well before the weekend. I'm guessing there will be a trade or two in the days leading up to it, especially if Zach Parise and Ryan Suter aren't signed and the Devils and Predators start shopping their negotiating rights. But we'll have plenty of time to debate that stuff down the road. Enjoy the playoffs, Scotty, should be a fun one.