The 2023 NHL Draft is nearly here, and chatter around who the Edmonton Oilers will pick with their first-round selection is starting to pick up. The pre-draft hype hasn’t been quite the same this year in Oil Country where fans spent a good chunk of their spring swept up in another long Oilers playoff run.
It’s a little different than 11 years ago when the 2012 NHL Draft was all anyone in Edmonton talked about for months beforehand. There had been nothing else during the 2011-12 season to get excited about with an Oilers team that finished with the NHL’s second-worst record. Once Edmonton was awarded the first overall pick by winning the draft lottery, anticipation reached a new feverish level.
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Spring 2012 ended up being the sixth straight season without NHL playoff hockey in Edmonton, but there was a reason for optimism that the slump would soon end. The Oilers’ lineup already included the first overall selection from the previous two drafts, Taylor Hall in 2010 and Ryan Nugent Hopkins in 2011, and they were about to add an unprecedented third straight No. 1 to the mix.
With five of the first 93 picks and seven total, Edmonton was poised for a transformative two days at the NHL Draft on June 22 and 23, 2012 in Pittsburgh. But looking back 10 years later, it’s now safe to say that the only thing the 2012 Draft turned out to be for the Oilers was just another dubious date during “The Decade of Darkness” (Edmonton’s 10 straight seasons missing the playoffs from 2007 to 2016).
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By the numbers, Edmonton’s performance at the 1990 Draft is the worst of all time. On that day, the Oilers made 11 selections, not one of whom ever skated a single shift in the NHL. That’s a record still untouched, as no other NHL team has had as many picks in a single draft without at least one reaching the NHL.
However, in 1990, the Oilers had just come off winning their fifth Stanley Cup in seven years, and their own pick in the 1990 Draft came towards the end of each round. Considering what was at stake in 2012, and Edmonton’s high pick positioning, that year’s draft ranks as one of the biggest failures in franchise history, and it started right from the top.
First Round: Nail Yakupov
Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini kicked off the 2012 Draft by announcing that with the first overall pick, the Oilers were taking Nail Yakupov, a forward from the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Sarnia Sting. On the TSN broadcast, Pierre Maguire raised a red flag over Yakupov being held without a goal with Team Russia at the 2012 World Juniors. The commentator’s concern proved well-founded.
Yakupov actually got off to a strong start in Edmonton, though, as he played all 48 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, leading NHL rookies with 17 goals and tying Jonathan Huberdeau for the rookie points lead, with 31. Incredibly, that season as a 19-year-old was the peak of success for Yakupov, who in five more NHL seasons scored at a rate of just over 12 goals per 82 games.
Just prior to the 2016-17 campaign, Edmonton dealt Yakupov to the St. Louis Blues, who subsequently opted not to re-sign the Russian at season’s end. He then joined the Colorado Avalanche for 2017-18 on a one-year deal that turned out to be his final NHL contract. He left the NHL after totalling 62 goals and 136 points in 350 games over six seasons and has been in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) ever since.
In a recent THW article, Yakupov was rated as the sixth-worst No. 1 draft pick of all time. The facts concur: He has played the fewest NHL games of any skater drafted first overall between 1982 and 2017, and of all players drafted first overall between 1992 and 2018, he’s played the third-fewest games with the team that drafted him. The player that so many thought would lead Edmonton back into the postseason, he never appeared in an NHL playoff game.
Second Round: Mitch Moroz
For their first pick on Day 2 of the 2012 Draft, the Oilers went way off the board to select winger Mitch Moroz of the Western Hockey League’s Edmonton Oil Kings.
There was a lot to admire about Moroz, who later proved instrumental in the Oil Kings winning the 2014 Memorial Cup. With his blue-collar style of play, leadership by example, and most of all, fearlessness to go to the front of the net where he scored the ugliest of goals, he reminded fans of beloved Oilers great Ryan Smyth.
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But Smyth spent nearly two decades in the NHL, while Moroz didn’t play a single NHL game. He ended up spending three seasons in the American Hockey League (AHL), eventually having his rights dealt to the Arizona Coyotes, who didn’t extend a qualifying offer to the 6-foot-3 forward when his entry-level contract expired after the 2016-17 season.
Moroz played three more years of pro hockey in the ECHL, before retiring. He discussed his decision to step away from hockey, detailing struggles with mental health and physical injuries, in a poignant appearance on the Hockey 2 Hell And Back podcast last year.
Third Round: Jujhar Khaira and Daniil Zharkov
With the 63rd pick, Edmonton took Jujhar Khaira, who was coming off his second season of Junior A with the British Columbia Hockey League’s Prince George Spruce Kings. Of the Oilers’ 2012 Draft class, the 6-foot-4 forward played the most games for Edmonton and is one of only two that were in the NHL this season.
Khaira made his NHL debut in 2015-16 and became a regular in Edmonton’s lineup two years later. He appeared in 258 games over parts of six seasons with the Oilers, scoring 24 goals and adding 39 assists. Following the 2020-21 campaign, he signed a two-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks but missed most of 2021-22 because of injury.
Edmonton had a second pick in the third round, at 91st overall, and used it to grab Daniil Zharkov of the OHL’s Belleville Bulls. The left winger never signed with the Oilers and ended up returning to Russia for a stint in the KHL. He last played in 2016-17.
Fourth Round: Erik Gustaffson
Befitting of their 2012 Draft showing, the Oilers brilliantly unearthed a hidden gem when they selected Erik Gustaffson at No. 93, but then bafflingly didn’t sign the Swedish defenceman, who continued to play in his home country after being picked by Edmonton. When his Oilers rights expired in 2015, Gustaffson signed with the Chicago Blackhawks, and the rest, as they say, is history.
He’s now played parts of six seasons in the NHL, totalling 191 points in 379 games. In 2018-19, Gustaffson had 17 goals and 60 points, to rank third and sixth, respectively, among NHL blueliners. In 2021, he went to the Stanley Cup Final with the Montreal Canadiens. He’s now back with the Blackhawks.
Fifth Round: Joey Laleggia
At pick No. 123, the Oilers selected Joey Laleggia, a defenceman from the University of Denver. He put up some big offensive numbers in the AHL, including scoring 20 goals for the Bakersfield Condors in 2016-17, but never got into a game with the parent club. After his Oilers contract expired, he signed with the Blues in 2018 and played two more seasons in the AHL. He’s since spent the last two years in Sweden.
Sixth Round: John McCarron
Edmonton’s final selection, 153rd overall, of 2012 was Cornell University forward John McCarron. The Michigan native never signed with the Oilers and has spent most of his pro career in the ECHL, where he just wrapped up a sixth season with the Florida Everblades.
What Could Have Been
Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but there are a number of players the Oilers could have selected in 2012 who have gone on to become all-stars, most notably goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (selected 19th overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning), who already appears to be well on his way to the Hall-of-Fame. Others passed over by Edmonton include Morgan Rielly (5th, Toronto Maple Leafs), Filip Forsberg (11th, Washington Capitals), Tomas Hertl (17th, San Jose Sharks), Frederik Andersen (87th, Anaheim Ducks), Jaccob Slavin (120th, Carolina Hurricanes), and Connor Hellebuyck (130th, Winnipeg Jets) to pick just a few names from a list that Oilers fans would probably rather not see.
How bad did the 2012 Draft end up being for the Oilers? They took someone else’s massive mistake and made it their own, trading picks 16 and 33 in 2015 to the New York Islanders to acquire the 2012 fourth overall draft pick, Griffin Reinhart, in an all-time infamous trade. He has played only 37 career games in the NHL and suited up for just 29 with the Oilers before the Vegas Golden Knights selected him in the 2017 Expansion Draft. He spent last season in the United Kingdom with the Belfast Giants of the Elite Ice Hockey League.
A decade later, the combined NHL stats of Edmonton’s 2012 draft class are 944 games played (511 with the Oilers), 121 goals (74), and 359 points (174). What’s most damning is the fact that none of the players were still in Edmonton last season playing a role in the team’s breakthrough after years upon years of trying to get back into the championship contender mix.
When the 10th anniversary of this year’s draft rolls around in 2032, Oil Country hopes to look back upon it much more fondly.