"It would be great if that many Russian players went in the draft, but for me, I want to be No. 1," NHL Central Scouting's top-rated North American skater, Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting, told NHL.com.
2012 NHL DRAFT
The best-ever draft picks, from 1 to 30
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That list includes lightning-quick right wing Yakupov, big center Mikhail Grigorenko of the Quebec Remparts, and goalie Andrei Vasilevski of Ufa 2 in Russia's minor hockey league. Additionally, there's Yakupov's teammate in Sarnia, American-born center Alex Galchenyuk, whose father is of Russian decent. Galchenyuk, born in Milwaukee, Wis., considers himself American but he's also lived in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Russia.
"For me, he's Russian," Yakupov said of his good friend. "He can speak the Russian language but he looks like a U.S. guy. Russian people [are] a little bit different."
Grigorenko, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's top rookie and best pro prospect after producing 40 goals and 85 points in 59 games, would be ecstatic to be part of such elite company.
"It would mean Russian hockey is good and it stands out," Grigorenko told NHL.com. "My first year was tough at first. The life part was tough, learning the language and getting to know a new team. But my teammates helped and supported me. I learned how to play defensively and without the puck because, with the puck, I could play well."
Grigorenko's primary mentor was Remparts head coach Patrick Roy.
"The first time I met him, I was scared a little bit because he's Patrick Roy … one of the best goalies in history," Grigorenko said. "But he's such a nice guy and [he] supported me. Sometimes he could be tough, but he's out to make you better."
Yakupov finished third on the team with 69 points, including 31 goals, in 42 games for the Sting this season. He had a plus-15 rating and 12 power-play goals. In the annual OHL Western Conference Coaches Poll, he was the only player to be honored in three categories: Most Dangerous in the Goal Area, Best Shot, and Best Stick-handler.
Yakupov was asked if he feels he plays bigger than his stature (5-foot-10 1/2, 189 pounds).
"It's hockey," he said. "If you're not physical, you can't play [in the NHL]. The League plays strong guys and they've worked hard. I changed my work in the gym and on the ice, and changed my style of hockey in my two years in Sarnia. If you want to score, you have to work hard.
"Every team in the OHL plays hard and you have to forecheck and backcheck. It's small rinks and small ice, so that's why you have to work. If you want to win World Juniors and Stanley Cups, you have to forecheck and play physical."
Galchenyuk said the idea of learning the North American game came to him after watching John Tavares skate circles around the competition as a member of the Oshawa Generals in 2007.
"I was 14- or 15-years-old and with the Russian Team that went to Oshawa and Mississauga, and when I walked into the arena, there were like 5,000 people," Galchenyuk told NHL.com. "I didn't know there would be such a big rink for young guys, because, in Russia, 5,000 people were usually watching the professional guys. So I was like, I want to play here."
"It would be great if that many Russian players went in the draft, but for me, I want to be No. 1." -- NHL Central Scouting's top-rated North American skater, Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting
Galchenyuk, who made his regular-season debut March 14 after being sidelined all season after ACL surgery in October, played one game before departing a March 16 game against the London Knights with an upper-body injury. He returned for the playoffs, scoring two goals and four points in six games. In 2010-11, "Gally" finished second behind Yakupov among OHL rookies with 83 points, including 31 goals.
Vasilevski, Central Scouting's top-ranked European goalie, had 28 team interviews over four days during the NHL Scouting Combine. He is considered by some to be the best goalie prospect on the board at this draft. But on almost every occasion during those interviews, he was asked about being pulled at the 14:17 mark of the third period in the semifinal round of the 2012 World Junior Championship against Canada. At the time, Vasilevski's team was clinging to a 6-5 lead that became the final score.
Each time, he offered this response:
"I wasn't injured but just very exhausted, emotionally and physically, and it was the right decision that the coach [Valeri Bragin] made to put in Andrei Makarov," Vasilevski told NHL.com through an interpreter. "I'm a young player and I need to improve, especially my physical condition. I'm becoming more mentally tough, too, so it's something I need to continue to work on this off-season."
He said he's "50-50" on whether he'll play in North America or return to Russia for the 2012-13 season. All signs point to the latter, however.
"The NHL is no question the best organized [League] in everything and I want to play here," he said.