Philadelphia, PA – With the Los Angeles Kings only a week removed from celebrating their first Stanley Cup title, the value of improving your team at the NHL Entry Draft is easy to recognize.
The Kings spent most of this century undergoing a lengthy rebuild process that primarily centered around stockpiling talent via the league's annual draft.
Through that process Los Angeles was able to add eventual superstars like Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, but the Kings also acquired some solid role players in the draft like Dwight King, Alec Martinez, Kyle Clifford and Jordan Nolan.
The key lesson to be learned from the Kings' model of success is that there is talent to be had all over the draft if you do your homework. L.A. nabbed Kopitar, Brown and Doughty in the first round, but Quick -- this year's Conn Smythe winner and currently one of the best goaltenders in the world -- was an absolute steal as the 72nd overall selection (3rd round) in 2005. There is also the case of Nolan, who warranted only a seventh-round pick three years before he helped the Kings lift Lord Stanley's this spring.
One team that should pay close attention to what the Kings were able to do over the last several years is the Edmonton Oilers, who have the No. 1 overall pick for the third straight year. After selecting Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent- Hopkins with the top pick in 2010 and 2011, respectively, the big question this year is whether Edmonton will use its No. 1 selection this time around or trade down.
The dilemma for the Oilers is that both Hall and Nugent-Hopkins are forwards just like top player available at this year's draft -- Nail Yakupov. Even though Yakupov is expected to be a can't-miss prospect, the Oilers are clearly a team that desperately could use defensive help rather than another young offensive talent.
The most intriguing unknown heading into every draft is how actively teams will pursue or entertain trades. The Oilers may choose to set the tone early at this year's draft weekend by dealing the top pick, but of course, the team is playing its cards close to the vest.
The second pick in this year's draft belongs to Columbus, which may also be busy trying to make a deal this weekend. The Blue Jackets are still shopping Rick Nash -- a former No. 1 overall pick by Columbus in 2002 -- and the draft is where a deal to land the star winger may actually happen.
It's hard to do anything other than make wild guesses about what kind of trades may happen this weekend. It's even more difficult to truly gauge what type of draft-eligible players are available. We know who the scouts think are the most talented kids at this stage, but at 17 and 18 years old, some players are just too raw to know anything definitive about them.
Here's a closer look at some of the best players available this weekend in Pittsburgh:
NAIL YAKUPOV - RW - SARNIA (OHL)
Yakupov is the scout's choice as the top player in this year's draft and it's pretty clear why. Even though he played in only 42 games during an injury- plagued season for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL in 2011-12, he still managed to post 69 points on 31 goals and 38 assists. Two years ago, the Russian native won both the OHL and CHL rookie of the year honors after registering 49 goals and 101 points in 69 games. Although undersized at 5-foot-11, 189 pounds, the winger has a tremendous offensive skill set and is considered by many to be the best Russian prospect since Washington superstar winger Alex Ovechkin.
In a draft that is short on immediate impact players, Yakupov appears to be the most ready to make the leap to the NHL. Although Edmonton will be tempted to trade down, the Oilers could ultimately decide that Yakupov is the only player in the draft that can help them improve right now. After all, having the No. 1 overall pick is nice, but its doubtful Edmonton wants to have that distinction for a fourth straight year. Yakupov could be the guy to break the cycle for Edmonton. A true impact player with the ability to lift up an organization doesn't come around too often; the Oilers should be careful not to miss their chance to grab one.
RYAN MURRAY - D - EVERETT (WHL)
While this year's draft is expected to be deep at defenseman, there doesn't seem to be a clear-cut No. 1 blueliner available. Although Matt Dumba probably has the higher ceiling, Murray seems to be the safest bet to become a top- pairing guy. There are also some scouts who have compared Murray to Scott Niedermayer, but the two players are connected more by their leadership qualities than pure skill. Before the 2010-11 season, Murray was named the captain of Everett, becoming the youngest player to wear the "C" in the history of the Silvertips. He also helped Team Canada win a Bronze Medal at the 2012 World Junior Championship, where he became the second-youngest player -- after Paul Kariya in 1993 -- to skate for Team Canada at the WJC. Murray is the complete package in terms of size, skill and intangibles, but how a team feels about his offensive upside will determine if he goes at No. 2 to Columbus or if he starts to drop.
MATHEW DUMBA - D - RED DEER (WHL)
Challenging Murray for the title of best defenseman in the draft is Dumba, a Calgary native that scouts love to compare former Flames blueliner Dion Phaneuf. Like Phaneuf, who is currently the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dumba plays junior hockey for the Red Deer Rebels, has a heavy shot from the point and a penchant for delivering huge open-ice hits. Dumba led all WHL defensemen with 20 goals in 69 games during the 2011-12 season and he also shined as the captain of Canada's U-18 WJC team, leading the tournament with 12 points (5G, 7A) in seven games. However, unlike Phaneuf, there are questions about Dumba's size, but many scouts believe he makes up for his average height and build with exceptional skating ability. Undoubtedly a riskier prospect than Murray, Dumba could wind up being the more dynamic player at the NHL level.
MORGAN RIELLY - D - MOOSE JAW (WHL)
Along with Murray and Dumba, Rielly is part of a trio of blue-chip WHL defensive prospects that should go early in the first round on Friday. Rielly is an interesting case because he missed five months of the 2011-12 WHL season with a torn ACL. He was back for the playoffs, however, and had three goals and three assists in five games for the Moose Jaw Warriors. Rielly showed what he could do over the course of a full season in 2010-11, amassing 31 goals and 83 points in 68 games for the Warriors. Rielly has drawn comparisons to Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith because of his superior skating ability and he could wind up being the best of this year's defensive prospects in terms of pure playmaking ability.
MIKHAIL GRIGORENKO - C - QUEBEC (QMJHL)
Yakupov's compatriot has turned heads while playing for the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, but Grigorenko is not as bankable a talent as this year's top prospect. Still, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Russian is already built like an NHL player and is coming off a terrific rookie season in Canadian juniors. Grigorenko led all QMJHL rookies in 2011-12 with 40 goals and 85 points and he also helped Team Russia to a Silver Medal at the 2012 WJC, posting two goals and three assists over six games. By playing in Canadian juniors, Grigorenko has sent a signal to NHL teams that his future is in North America and not the KHL. He also had the benefit of playing for Patrick Roy, the current head coach of the Remparts, and the NHL goaltending legend was working hard to instill some added toughness to Grigorenko's arsenal. He probably needs a year or two more at the junior level to polish his overall game, but Grigorenko could develop into a top-line centerman at the NHL level.
FILIP FORSBERG - C - LEKSAND (SWEDEN)
The top-ranked player out of the European crop according to NHL Central Scouting, this centerman has a tremendous offensive skill set and has already tested his mettle playing among men in Sweden's second-tier professional league. While he is not related to his country's national hero, Peter Forsberg, this Swede is like Foppa in that he is the complete package and is capable of doing a bit of everything on the ice. The one knock is that scouts seems to be more certain of Forsberg's worth as a defensive forward than as a scorer. Although it seems likely that he'll be able to contribute in some way to an NHL team down the road, teams desire tremendous offensive upside early in the draft and if clubs feel unsure about his scoring potential it could hurt his stock on draft day.
MALCOLM SUBBAN - G - BELLEVILLE (OHL)
In what is being billed as a strong year for goaltending prospects, Subban could be the first puck-stopper to be taken this weekend. The brother of Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, Malcolm is a supreme athlete with amazing quickness between the pipes. That being said, Subban is several years away from being an NHL goaltender. In fact, Malcolm played defense like his older brother until switching to goalie at age 12 and is still very much a raw prospect. By all accounts, Subban is eager to learn the position and once he is able to settle down and focus on technique, his athleticism may allow him to be a star goaltender at the NHL level. Russia's Andrei Vasilevski and Sweden's Oscar Dansk probably are the safer goalie picks at this year's draft, but while a riskier bet, there is little doubt Subban has the highest ceiling.