Could Oilers opt for a defenseman with first pick?
Mike G. Morreale
TORONTO -- Will this be the first time in over two decades that the Edmonton Oilers opt to select a defenseman with their first pick in the first round of the NHL Draft?
It's possible. But until Commissioner Gary Bettman announces that the Oilers officially are on the clock on June 22 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, there's absolutely no way to predict.
In the meantime, here's what we do know.
Stu MacGregor, the organization's head amateur scout, said that while he feels this year's draft isn't quite as deep as last year's, he said this year's crop of prospects is loaded from a defensive standpoint and that there are a number of franchise-type players to be had. Eight of the top 12 players in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters are defensemen.
The Oilers currently hold the first choice, the third straight year they've had that spot. In 2010, Edmonton won the lottery, retaining the top pick in the Draft, which they used to select Taylor Hall. Last year, the Oilers again retained the first pick, which they used to select Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Who will it be this year?
"Our job as scouts is just to put the best available players in order that we feel have the potential, and we will at some point investigate where we're going. But at this point we're still working on 1-to-100 and we feel we have some defensive prospects coming up who are going to be really good players." -- Oilers head amateur scout Stu MacGregor
While MacGregor didn't rule out the possibility of selecting right wing Nail Yakupov of the Ontario Hockey League's Sarnia Sting, the No. 1 player in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, he also didn't feel the need to provide a ringing endorsement, either.
"I wouldn't say that [Yakupov is the true No. 1]," MacGregor told NHL.com. "I think he's one of the players you have to consider for that spot, but I think there are a few players you have to consider."
Despite playing just 42 regular-season games, Yakupov finished third on the team in 2011-12 with 69 points, including 31 goals. He also had a plus-15 rating and 12 power-play goals. After Yakupov, NHL Central Scouting listed defenseman Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips as the No. 2 skater, followed by center Mikhail Grigorenko of the Quebec Remparts, Sarnia center Alex Galchenyuk and Moose Jaw Warriors defenseman Morgan Rielly.
Murray, the first of six defensemen listed among the top 10 North American skaters, had nine goals and 31 points in 46 regular-season games for the Silvertips in the Western Hockey League this season.
"People have talked about how strong a draft this is from a defensive standpoint, and I think that's true," MacGregor said. "Still, there are some real good forwards that are still going to be impact players once in the NHL."
When asked to comment on the European standouts eligible for this year's draft, MacGregor seemed optimistic.
"I think it's a decent crop," he said. "Certainly there are three or four outstanding goaltenders and [Leksand's Filip] Forsberg is one of those players you have to consider for the top spot. He's going to be a long-time player."
The Oilers have seven picks in the seven-round draft, including two in the third -- one of those coming from the Los Angeles Kings in the Dustin Penner trade.
Rumors abound with what Edmonton might do with the first pick this year, from trading it to using it on a defenseman.
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In 33 years, the Oilers have selected only seven defensemen with their initial selection in the first round. Five of those picks came in the opening six years -- Kevin Lowe (1979), Paul Coffey (1980), Jim Playfair (1982), Jeff Beukeboom (1983) and Selmar Odelein (1984).
If the Oilers opt to pick a defenseman, Murray, Rielly and Ottawa's Cody Ceci could be considerations. MacGregor did stress that the Russian factor has little to no bearing on which player Edmonton will choose first overall, which means there will be no hesitation toward taking Yakupov, Galchenyuk or Grigorenko.
"The Russian factor is nothing," MacGregor said. "If a player is a good player, he's a good player. Players are in the Czech league that remain in the Czech league, so you have to ask that question of anyone. There's also times when players here in North American will wind up in the KHL. I think this whole Russian factor is not a factor at all."
MacGregor also had high praise for the U.S. National Team Development Program. There were five players from the USNTDP, including ninth-ranked defenseman Jacob Trouba, invited to the NHL Scouting Combine.
"I think the NTDP has a great program and are developing players," MacGregor said. "They're obviously creating a winning culture with their under-18 program. The players are learning to win and they're winners on the international scene. The players are getting better when they go there, and there was a lot of character on the group of players that were there this year. You're going to see more and more of those players playing in the NHL as they progress through the junior-hockey and college-hockey ranks."
What does MacGregor look for in a player when he's on the road?
"I think how they play on the ice and perform is No. 1," he said. "We look for players who would have leadership capability, players with character and players that have been winners. We want players who are great team players, willing to be able to fit in within our group."
When asked if the pressure mounts each year the organization picks first and fails to qualify for the playoffs -- the Oilers haven't been there since 2006 -- MacGregor smiled.
"I'm tired of [selecting first]," he said. "I think there's always pressure to succeed and there should be pressure to succeed … that's the business we're in. We're just trying to do the best we can with what we have. Our organization is obviously in a rebuild situation and we'll continue to try and bring in as many assets as we can to our organization through the draft or through other ways."
MacGregor refused to tip his hand on whether the team had determined who it would take with the first pick.
"I think we haven't even gotten to that place with regard to positioning," he said. "Our job as scouts is just to put the best available players in order that we feel have the potential, and we will at some point investigate where we're going. But at this point we're still working on 1-to-100 and we feel we have some defensive prospects coming up who are going to be really good players."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale