Nail Yakupov is one of the NHL’s most notable draft busts in recent memory. The Edmonton Oilers surely whiffed on this first-overall pick in 2012, as Yakupov contributed next to nothing on the ice, and found himself out of the league a few years later.
But what if the Oilers had taken a chance on someone else with that No. 1 pick? What would the team look like today? Where would they fit on the current roster? It’s a question that has surely been on the minds of Oilers fans for years, and today it will be answered.
2012 Draft Talent
The 2012 NHL Entry Draft was not the strongest draft class as far as talent goes, featuring busts like fourth-overall pick Griffin Reinhart and 12th pick Mikhail Grigorenko. However, a few notable prospects have since contributed at the NHL level. Third-round pick Shayne Gostisbehere has made a name for himself as a staple on the Philadelphia Flyers’ blue line, The 17th-overall pick Tomas Hertl has become a centrepiece of the San Jose Sharks’ core, and third-round pick Frederik Andersen has solidified himself as one of the top goaltenders in the league.
At the time, however, none of these players were in the conversation for the top pick, so selecting them first overall in hindsight is not realistic. The players to be discussed here were realistic options that the Oilers could have taken at the No. 1 spot. Any player picked within the lottery, with the exception of Andrei Vasilevskiy, will be considered, which is more realistic for the sake of argument.
Morgan Rielly, selected sixth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs, has developed into a top-tier defenseman for the club. It took him a couple of seasons to get going, but it’s safe to say he was worth the wait. He has consistently put up solid numbers offensively, including 72 points in a breakout 2018-19 season, and is on the Maple Leafs’ top pairing.
If the Oilers had taken Rielly with the No. 1 pick, their d-corps would’ve been set for the next half-decade. One problem the Oilers have faced in recent years is their mediocre defensive line, consistently finding themselves in the bottom half of the league for goals against, with the exception of the 2016-17 season where they ranked eighth.
Rielly wouldn’t have made much of an impact in his first couple seasons as an Oiler, so the Oilers would have likely have kept the same picks for the following three drafts, when they selected Darnell Nurse, Leon Draisaitl, and Connor McDavid. Heading into the 2021-22 season, Rielly and Nurse would have formed one of the top back-end duos in the NHL. What could’ve been.
Vasilevskiy was taken with the 19th pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning, so putting him in the conversation for the first-overall selection at the time would have been a major reach. Fast-forward to 2020, however, and Vasilevskiy is a Cup champion, after manning the crease for the Lightning this past season. He is also among the best netminders in the NHL.
For the sake of argument, if the Oilers had decided to take a gamble on Vasilevskiy in 2012, the revolving door of goalies would have effectively come to a halt. Oilers Nation would have been upset by the risk of selecting a goaltender No. 1, with more appealing options on the board, and who knows how he would have fared in Edmonton with the pressure of his draft status.
Like Rielly, Vasilevskiy would have suffered growing pains at first, making minimal impact on the team’s record, which would have benefitted the team as far as the draft capital goes. But if he had turned into the goalie he is in Tampa Bay right now, the Oilers would have been set in net for years to come. Vasilevskiy would’ve been exactly what the Oilers needed to get over the hump to become legit Cup contenders.
Matt Dumba was taken with the seventh-overall pick by the Minnesota Wild in 2012 and has since developed into one of their top options on defense. He has an electric skating ability and can rush up the ice with the puck at a moment’s notice. The energy he brings to the game alone is momentum-shifting, and he has been huge for the Wild in recent years.
If the Oilers had decided to take a chance on Dumba with the top pick, the public’s reaction would have been similar to Vasilevskiy. It took Dumba a few seasons to solidify himself as an NHL-caliber player, so the media would inevitably have labelled him a bust, given his lack of success as a top draft pick to start his career.
In this case, the Oilers would still have landed Nurse, Draisaitl and McDavid in the draft, as Dumba provided next to zero value in his first couple of seasons. On the current roster, he would provide a solid top-four presence on the back end. It’s hard to picture Dumba developing in Edmonton the way he has in Minnesota, given his slow start and the pressure of living up to the hype of being a No. 1 pick looming over him.
Filip Forsberg was taken with the 11th pick in the 2012 Draft by the Washington Capitals and was immediately shipped off to the Nashville Predators. Forsberg burst onto the scene in 2014, putting up 63 points in his first full NHL season with the Predators. He has hovered around the 30-goal per season mark since his breakout season and has proven to be a go-to option on offense.
On the current Oilers roster, Forsberg would slide in nicely alongside McDavid on the top line, providing a talented winger that McDavid hasn’t yet played with aside from Draisaitl. A trio featuring McDavid, Draisaitl and Forsberg would’ve spelled major trouble for the rest of the NHL and playing alongside a superstar would have opened up scoring opportunities for Forsberg, as opposing defenders are drawn away from him.
The Oilers have put themselves in a tough spot; they are talented enough to make the playoffs but lack the supporting cast to make a deep run. However, any of these players would have been a better selection than Yakupov, as they each would have filled a current need on a roster that is looking to make a playoff push.
If the Oilers could redraft their top selection in 2012, Vasilevskiy would be the obvious choice, and Forsberg making a solid case as well. By selecting Yakupov, Oilers fans have been asking themselves the same question: what if they’d taken someone else? It’s impossible to know where the Oilers would be today if they had gone in a different direction, but it’s hard not to, at least, wonder.