And so it begins.
|Nail Yakupov, Sarnia Sting
The road to the 2012 NHL Entry Draft is well under way and, not surprisingly, there are several players vying for top honors. At the head of the list is Russian Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League.
The Sting open the season on Friday against Erie at the RBC Centre. In six preseason games, Yakupov did nothing to disappoint, racking up 6 goals and 15 points. He closed out the preseason with a spectacular five-point outburst, including 4 goals, in a 6-1 victory over the Windsor Spitfires.
NHL Network analyst Craig Button feels Yakupov is the real deal.
"He's got an abundance of skills," Button told NHL.com. "When you're talking about the top eight guys (in the 2012 draft), you're talking about so many attributes and he fits right into that category as a player with multiple attributes."
The native of Nizhnekamsk, Russia, who was named Rookie of the Year in the Canadian Hockey League in 2010-11, led all first-year players and finished tied for fourth overall in OHL scoring with 101 points in 65 games (49 goals, 52 assists). He became just the fifth OHL rookie to reach 100 points in a season in the last 15 years and established new team record for goals and points by a rookie -- surpassing the marks set by Steven Stamkos
"When you watch Yakupov, you can see that explosive ability but you also that stealth ability, like Jari Kurri
," Button said. "Kurri would wait, and before you knew it, not only was (Wayne) Gretzky moving in, but Kurri was moving into the right spot and it was too late. Yakupov has that ability, which is why I've compared him to Kurri. Jari was always one of those guys to say, 'I'm not going to go there yet because it's not time to go there.' Yakupov has that similar ability and patience."
Yakupov (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) represented Russia at the 2011 World Under-18 Championships, notching a hat trick in a 6-4 victory over Team Canada in the bronze medal game.
In addition to Yakupov, Button named three defensemen from the Western Hockey League who looked primed to go in relative early fashion next June -- Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips, Matt Dumba of the Red Deer Rebels and Morgan Rielly of the Moose Jaw Warriors.
Murray was named Everett's captain this past season by head coach Craig Hartsburg
despite the fact his 6-foot-1/2, 190-pound blueliner had just turned 17-years-old. The move was made when regular captain Landon Ferraro
, a second-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings
in 2009, was sidelined due to sports hernia surgery and a bum shoulder. He'll serve as captain of the Silvertips this season as well. In 122 career games for the Silvertips, Murray has recorded 73 points (11-62-73) and is Everett's all-time plus-minus leader with a +51 rating.
"Murray is a real dependable, consistent defenseman," Button said. "He reminds me of a Kevin Lowe
-type defender. He passes the puck very well and is the type of player you want on your team."
NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards feels Murray is the complete package.
"He's an excellent skater," Edwards said. "His mobility, agility and speed make him, at this point, one of the best skaters up for the draft. He possesses excellent puck handling and decision making and is a top two defenseman in Everett. I would expect him to be a top two at the pro level as well."
Dumba was the WHL's rookie of the year in 2010-11, connecting for 15 goals and 26 points for the Rebels in 62 games. He was also a plus-24 with 83 penalty minutes. At the 2011 U-17 World Hockey Challenge in Winnipeg, Manitoba in January, Dumba led the tournament with 12 assists and 12 points.
"He's a kid who reminds me of P.K. Subban
)," Button said of Dumba.
Rielly, meanwhile, led Moose Jaw in scoring as a rookie last season with 6 goals and 28 points in 65 games. He was also the second youngest player to represent Team Canada at the 2011 World Under-18 Championships.
"Rielly will lift you out of your seat," Central Scouting's Peter Sullivan
told NHL.com. "He's and exceptional skater; he skates as well as anyone that's ever played in the WHL. He twists and turns on a dime and is very exciting to watch."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale