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Unpredictable draft headed to Pittsburgh

| Sunday, June 3, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

TORONTO — The 2012 NHL Draft will take place at Consol Energy Center in 19 days. By now, most drafts begin to take at least rough form. This one, however, remains utterly unpredictable.

Here's a look at the top storylines, where they stand and how they could develop:

Nail says he won't bail

Although many facets of this draft remain unpredictable, there is unanimous agreement that Ontario Hockey League star Nail Yakupov is the top prospect. Yakupov, who left Russia at 16 years old for Canada, was bombarded by questions here during the NHL Draft Combine about the possibility that he will ditch the NHL for the KHL, something that many European players have opted for in recent years.

Yakupov, who speaks exceptional English and whose charisma is similar to that of Washington star Alex Ovechkin's, is adamant that he will remain loyal to the NHL.

“I will be happy with whatever team drafts me,” Yakupov said. “I've always wanted to play in the NHL. This is where I want to be.”

Yakupov isn't considered on a level with Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, who were the top picks in the 2004 and 2005 drafts, respectively. But many scouts at the combine confirmed that they expect him to become a star and compared him favorably to recent No. 1 picks like John Tavares and Steven Stamkos. Former Penguins coach Scotty Bowman said in January that Yakupov reminds him of former NHL star Pavel Bure.

“Whoever gets him,” Penguins director of amateur scouting Jay Heinbuck said, “is getting an electrifying player.”

But who will get him?

Trade brewing?

The Edmonton Oilers possess the top pick for a third consecutive season. In the previous two drafts, the Oilers selected flashy forwards in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall.

In Yakupov, the Oilers are staring at another flashy offensive player.

This might be a problem. Edmonton finished 23rd out of 30 teams in goals against last season and is lacking talented defensemen at the NHL and minor league levels. What the Oilers need is help on defense, but general manager Steve Tambellini will risk looking like a fool should he bypass the player who is easily the draft's top prospect.

So a trade makes sense.

“For us to trade the top pick,” Tambellini said at the combine, “a team would have to make a very significant offer.”

It is predictable that Tambellini would refuse to show his cards, and it remains predictable that Yakupov will be the first pick. But will the Oilers be the team making the pick? Tambellini didn't deny a trade is possible, as so many teams with the top pick have done over the past decade.

Commentators on “Hockey Night in Canada” and a report in the Edmonton Journal suggested this spring that the Oilers were interested in Penguins center Jordan Staal and might dangle the first-round pick to general manager Ray Shero. However, there is no indication that such a thing has happened nor is there evidence Shero is interested in such a deal.

Unpredictability abounds

While it remains unknown what the Oilers will do, the rest of the draft remains murky as well. Scouts agree that the draft has developed more nicely than had been anticipated a year ago, but after Yakupov, they are heavily divided regarding the first round.

“It has shaped up nicely,” Heinbuck said. “It looks like a good draft. But who knows what's going to happen?”

Josh Yohe is a reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jyohe@tribweb.com.

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