PITTSBURGH – Igor Larionov had never before been at an NHL draft. On his first try, he won jackpot. The IIHF Hall of Famer and Triple Gold Club member-turned-agent saw clients Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk go 1 and 3 respectively in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
After a couple of exhaustingly hot days in Pittsburgh, the rain came as a welcome relief to all GMs and scouts who needed cool heads to prevail when making crucial decisions on Day 1 of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
When the top five selections (out of a 211 total) were made, this is how the NHL teams finally had their prospects positioned:
1. Nail Yakupov, RW, RUS, Sarnia Sting (OHL) - Edmonton
2. Ryan Murray, D, CAN, Everett Silvertips (WHL) - Columbus
3. Alex Galchenyuk, C, USA, Sarnia Sting (OHL) - Montreal
4. Griffin Reinhart, D, CAN, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL) - NY Islanders
5. Morgan Rielly, D, CAN, Moose Jaw (WHL) - Toronto
This means that Yakupov became only the third Russian and sixth European to be selected first overall; Ilya Kovalchuk had the distinction in 2001, while Alexander Ovechkin was picked first in 2004. All three Russians are wingers.
For "rookie" player agent Igor Larionov, who by the way had never witnessed a draft live before, it was an overwhelming experience to have two of "his" players selected among the top-5 among a potential pool of around 300 eligible players from all corners of the hockey world.
"This was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced," said a visibly emotional Larionov to IIHF.com. "It is different than winning as a player, but it has the same feeling of emotion and reward. This is definitely one of the highlights of my life. I have difficulties expressing my feelings."
Larionov is more than just an agent. He played a big role in recruiting the duo and he has been their advisor and mentor.
"Three years ago when I resigned from the KHL board of directors, I started think what else I can do in hockey, how I can engage myself, help young players and to have my own schedule," said Igor Larionov, the former Soviet center great and who is one of only 25 players in the World to have won Olympic gold, World Championship gold and the Stanley Cup.
Larionov, inducted to the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2008, was approached by player agent Ian Pulver who asked whether he could join his player-representation business, of course benefitting from Larionov’s still legendary status in his home country and to help recruiting players from Russia.
Larionov’s first big assignments in 2010 was to travel to the Nizhnekamsk in the Russian republic of Tatarstan and to sit down with a 16-year old local prodigy from the local youth club Reaktor Nizhnekamsk and his parents.
During the discussion, it became clear that Nail Yakupov was a young man with a distinct sense of direction.
"Nail wanted to continue to develop in Canada and he made it very clear from the very beginning that he would go there to be the best and eventually be selected first overall in the NHL draft," said Larionov.
While Yakupov, despite developing in the Ontario Hockey League, is unmistakably Russian (Nail has represented his country in the 2011 World U18s and in 2012 World U20s), Alex Galchenyuk is "a little bit of this and a little bit of that" as he put it himself.
His father, also named Alexander, and Belarusian by birth, was playing minor-league hockey in Milwaukee when Alex Jr. was born, in 1994. Since then, young Alex has lived in every country where his father continued his career; Berlin, Germany; Milano and Asiago, Italy; Sierre, Switzerland; then, various Russian and Belarusian cities before moving back to the USA and Chicago 2008.
Alex has decided to represent the U.S. internationally, and he played for USA Hockey at the Ivan Hlinka U18 tournament last autumn. He has been selected to their National Junior Evaluation camp later this summer.
Father Alexander, who had his best years with Dynamo Moscow in the early 1990s, represented the Soviet Union at the 1991 Canada Cup and later Belarus at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano and the World Championship the same year.
Igor Larionov knows exactly what it takes to reach the highest level and as soon as the draft hoopla calms down, he has the following message to his players:
"This is just the beginning," says Larionov. "They need to continue working hard every day. They need to forsake things that normal teenagers do and be totally committed to hockey. Talent without work is nothing."
Other First Round highlights from the international viewpoint:
- Ryan Murray, who was drafted between Yakupov and Galchenyuk, is one of the very few Canadian players who have represented his country at an IIHF World Championship before playing in the NHL and before even being drafted. Due to several injuries to defenceman, Murray stayed with Team Canada and played in six Worlds’ games in Helsinki this spring. This – to have already played against seasoned pros and some of the best players in the World – will be an invaluable experience for Murray once he goes to his first NHL training camp with Columbus.
- Zemgus Girgensons became the highest drafted Latvian player ever. The powerful and skilled two-way centre, who had a strong IIHF World Juniors for Latvia in Calgary last winter, was selected 14th overall by Buffalo.
- Surprisingly, highly-ranked Filip Forsberg was not the first Swede drafted. Defenceman Hampus Lindholm (Rögle BK) was picked 6th by Anaheim, while winger Forsberg slipped down to 11th when Washington grabbed him.
- Radek Faksa marked the return of the Czechs to the first round, after a four year absence. He was the first from Czech Republic to go among the Top-30 (to Dallas as 13th) since Jakub Voracek was selected 7th in 2007. Countryman Tomas Hertl was claimed by San Jose four picks later.
- Canada dominated the first round with 14 players. USA 6, Russia 3, Sweden 2, Czech Republic 2, Finland 2, Latvia 1.
- The first round with the 30 selections took almost four hours to complete.
- Eight of the first ten selections were defensemen.