Keith Srakocic, Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — The Edmonton Oilers are getting tired of going first in the NHL draft and Nail Yakupov knows part of his job is to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Edmonton, picking No. 1 for the third straight year, grabbed the speedy Russian forward with the top pick on Friday. The Oilers believe the dazzling 18-year-old can join Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — the No. 1 picks the previous two years — in returning the once proud franchise to relevance.
Yakupov certainly thinks they can.
"I think it's going to be a great team," he said after becoming the first Russian taken No. 1 since Washington selected Alex Ovechkin in 2004.
Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov give the Oilers the kind of core to build around, but even as they celebrated Yakupov's rise, they caught a glimpse of how nothing lasts forever in the NHL.
Barely an hour after Yakupov donned his blue Edmonton sweater, the draft host Pittsburgh Penguins shook up the proceedings by sending center Jordan Staal to Carolina — reuniting him with older brother Eric — for center Brandon Sutter, defenseman Brian Dumoulin and a first-round pick they used to select defenseman Derrick Pouliot.
The 23-year-old Staal, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, provided the backbone that turned the Penguins into perennial Stanley Cup contenders. Now he's heading south after declining a contract extension.
"We wanted a deal (with Staal)," Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero said. "But it was obvious in the last 24 hours that ... this was the right thing to do."
The Penguins weren't done, trading defenseman Zbynek Michalek to Phoenix for two players and a third-round pick just after the end of the first round.
The draft continues Saturday, with more fireworks expected.
Yakupov and Staal provided enough on Friday night.
The charismatic Yakupov models his game after former NHL star Pavel Bure, and in a way the youngster already has a leg up on the Russian Rocket. Bure scored 437 goals during his 12-year career, but he wasn't taken until the sixth round of the 1989 draft.
Yakupov, who spent the last two seasons with the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League, didn't have to wait nearly as long to hear his name called. The Oilers practically sprinted to the podium to grab a player they believe has plenty of potential.
Yakupov, who scored 31 goals in 42 games last season, is eager for the next step following weeks of speculation.
"It's not over, it's just starting," he said.
Born in the Republic of Tatarstan in Russia, Yakupov has consistently shot down speculation he is going to return to his homeland and play in the Kontinental Hockey League. He stressed repeatedly in the days leading up to the draft that the NHL is "the best league in the world."
While hardly the biggest player on the ice, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Yakupov has dazzling speed and nimble footwork. He plays with a relentlessness that made him the top player on most draft boards. Yakupov broke Sarnia's rookie scoring record — previously held by Steven Stamkos — in the 2010-11 season when he finished with 49 goals and 101 points.
Yakupov was also a rarity in a top 10 dominated by defense. Other than Sarnia teammate Alex Galchenyuk, who was taken third overall by Montreal, the other eight picks were defensemen.
The Columbus Blue Jackets continued to shore up their blue line by taking Ryan Murray of the Western Hockey League's Everett Silvertips with the second pick. The 6-foot, 198-pound Murray had nine goals and 22 assists in 46 games last season.
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