In our mind's eye, there's endless hypothesizing about how a Alex Galchenyuk-Nail Yakupov draft derby coulda-woulda-shoulda unfolded.
It never came to be largely thanks to Galchenyuk's collision with a goal post during an exhibition game in September that cost the 18-year-old centre all but a handful of games skating alongside Yakupov with the Sarnia Sting. Might have it been a reprise of Taylor vs. Tyler from two years ago? Yakupov plays the right side, not the left side, but he is the scoring winger with skill and speed who is the more developed physical package thanks in part to an earlier birthday à la Taylor Hall in 2009-10. Galchenyuk could have been cast as the playmaking centre with the higher upside and more all-around game like Tyler Seguin showed that season with the Ontario Hockey League's
Yakupov's status as NHL Central Scouting and several other scouting services' top North American prospect for the NHL draft is justified, as BTN's Kelly Friesen detailed this morning. (This a strictly a sidebar to that post.) Yet HockeyProspect is willing to get out in front and say Galchenyuk should be the guy at the top of the draft list.
Alex is an extremely skilled player, who missed nearly six months of action with a knee injury. "Alex was right there in our pre-season discussions about who might be the No. 1 prospect for this year's draft," says HockeyProspect.com scout Ryan Yessie. Ryan lives in Sarnia, and had over 40 live viewings of Alex before his injury. "We felt Alex had everything needed to be that No. 1 prospect. It was very disappointing to see him go down with this injury, and we feel that although he only played a few games, he proved what we believe to have the most upside at the NHL level of any prospect."
Alex has elite vision on the ice, and uses it to both set up his teammates and score goals. He has an excellent shot, but equally as strong ability to thread difficult, accurate passes seemingly at will. His positioning is very strong, and makes him a threat offensively even when he does not have the puck. Back in September we identified areas for possible improvement for all the top level prospects in this draft. One of those areas for Alex was physical play. Alex played a strong Saginaw team in the playoffs, and we were really impressed with the addition of a physical edge to his game. His willingness to throw solid hits with his big frame has added an element to his game. While Alex still could use improvement on his first step or two, once he gets going he's as fast as any prospect you'll find in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He combines his speed, and uses his frame to protect the puck well. He applies himself defensively, and while there is certainly room for improvement, it's not quite as big a concern for us as it was a year ago. (HockeyProspect)
Not to parse this too finely, but there is a difference between Yakupov's ranking being justified and it being earned. The scouts have to go on what they can observe and then use to project. It is easier to extrapolate with a player who's been to offer two solid seasons of viewings in major junior rather than barely one such as Galchenyuk — although it's certainly not impossible. Yessie and HP founder Mark Edwards would not just put Galchenyuk ahead of Yakupov solely for the sake of drawing eyeballs.
This is no slight on Yakupov. He is going to be a damn fine NHL player and one should reasonably expect that when he turns 19 on Oct. 6, he'll be waking up in a big-league city rather than in Sarnia. But keen observers have noticed that the points didn't come so easily following the knee injury he suffered in the world junior gold-medal game. There were extenuating circumstances, surely, and you can't put a ton of stock in junior point totals since you don't know how many of them were hard-earned, but he counted just 21 in 22 games after rejoining the Sting on Jan. 27. That couldn't really just be put down to injuries, as Yessie noted:
"Nail has dropped off in his intensity and production. He has had a rough go at it this season suffering 3 injuries, and playing more hockey than he ever has in an intense World Junior Championship, as well as helping Sarnia make the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. He appeared to benefit more from playing with Alex, than Alex did playing with Nail. With this said, Yakupov is still an extremely talented prospect, and will be second to his teammate Alex in terms of his projection as a key NHL prospect for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft."
Whoever gets Galchenyuk, even he's the No. 6 overall choice, will also be getting a huge asset. He's not playing in this week's IIHF under-18 championship, the springtime scouts' delight where Yakupov cemented himself as the top prospect coming into this season. The workouts he has with NHL teams before the draft ought to be his proving ground.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.