Is Justin Schultz the best prospect in the NHL?

Jonathan Willis
December 15 2012 11:26AM

According to former Calgary Flames general manager Craig Button, the answer is “yes.”

On Friday, Button put out a list of the players he sees as the 30 best drafted prospects in the NHL. The Oilers had three players on the list – Schultz in the top spot, Nail Yakupov at number five, and Oscar Klefbom at number 18.

The fact is that there is a case for Schultz as the best prospect in the league. The 22-year old defenceman is leading the entire AHL in scoring – in a lockout year, no less – as a rookie professional. His 35 points this season are three more than second-place Jordan Eberle, and eight more than the next-nearest skater (diminutive Columbus prospect Cam Atkinson).

Schultz entered this season with high expectations after being the subject of an off-season recruiting war after he opted not to sign with the Anaheim Ducks, the team that drafted him. However high those expectations were, he’s blown them out of the water. Oklahoma coach Todd Nelson calls him the best player in the AHL – and Nelson has Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall skating for him.

Schultz is the only AHL’er in the top-five – likely in no small part because other top AHL’ers are already bona fide NHL players. The KHL, however has three prospects in Button’s upper echelon:

  • Second: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington. The 26th overall pick in 2010, Kuzentsov has evolved into a near point-per-game player in the KHL. Kuznetsov as brilliant for Russia at last year’s World Juniors, managing six goals and 13 points in seven games. He can do it all offensively.
  • Third: Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis. Another 2010 first round pick (16th overall), Tarasenko just turned 21 and has eclipsed the point-per-game mark in the KHL through 23 contests so far. Unlike Kuznetsov, Tarasenko has made it clear he plans to make the jump to the NHL immediately.
  • Fifth: Nail Yakupov, Edmonton. It’s hard for me to look at Yakupov’s KHL performance – both in terms of numbers and from having watched a bunch of games – and see him ranked below Tarasenko and Kuznetsov. Yakupov’s commitment to North America – including the fact that he played two years in the OHL in the lead-up to getting drafted – is clear, and he’s putting in a highly comparable KHL performance to the other two despite having just turned 19.

Morgan Rielly, a near point-per-game defenceman with Moose Jaw and the fifth overall pick last year, rounds out the list.

For my money, the top spot on the list is a toss-up between Yakupov and Justin Schultz. Schultz is older, and his results almost defy belief in an extremely tough AHL. In terms of pure offence, Yakupov stacks up fairly against any of the Oilers young guns; he might already be the best shooter in the system (though Jordan Eberle will contest that).

Other Highlights

Brett Ritchie is an interesting choice for the 10th spot. A 2010 draft pick with a 6’4” frame, the winger’s numbers have never been terribly impressive until this year. In 32 OHL games he has scored 27 goals and 50 points.

Dougie Hamilton at 12 is a tough one to take. The OHL’s best defenceman last year, Hamilton isn’t particularly mean but he’s good at everything else; I’m guessing he suffers here because of comparisons to Jay Bouwmeester. He’s a brilliant prospect, and a guy I’d take earlier.

Malcolm Subban goes from being the 24th best prospect (according to NHL scouts) in the 2012 Draft to the 15th spot on Button’s list. I like Subban a lot, and clearly Button does too but I’m leery about putting that kind of value on any young goaltender.

Rielly and Yakupov both get spots in the top-five on Button’s list, and Alex Galchenyuk just falls shot, but the rest of 2012’s top-five is conspicuous by their lack of impact. Ryan Murray is ranked a lowly 26th (I’m assuming injury has something to do with this) and Griffin Reinhart is omitted entirely.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Lowetide
December 15 2012, 11:30AM
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Button is a former NHL GM and his entire family (Dad, brother) are scouting men. His Dad started the Central Scouting Bureau mid-70s. I think his lists are interesting in that they inform us about why scouting lists can be so different.

For me, Yakupov is clearly #1 based on his performance in the KHL at a young age. Schultz is an outstanding talent, but is also an older player. Can you imagine what Yakupov might do in the KHL at age 22?

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#3 spOILer
December 15 2012, 11:43AM
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Agreed completely, JW. I happened to read Button's list just before seeing your article and was left wondering the same things.

Seems political almost, his ranking. Or populist maybe.

Another standout for me: I couldn't rank Grigorenko that low. Certainly not behind Brett Ritchie.

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#4 ItsTheBGB
December 15 2012, 11:48AM
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I love Morgan Rielly, always thought he was the best WHL defenseman from the 2012 draft, but Yak >>>> Morgan, without a doubt.

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#5 The Oilers Shot Clock
December 15 2012, 11:49AM
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Grigorenko behind Forsberg is odd considering Forsberg shouldn't even be on the list. Reilly at 5 is a bit wishfull too but I'm biased. This list will get a serious shuffle when the WJC are over anyways.

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#6 striatic
December 15 2012, 11:52AM
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i think it is also important to look at the talent Kuznetsov and Tarasenko are playing alongside versus who Yakupov is playing with.

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#7 The Oilers Shot Clock
December 15 2012, 11:52AM
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And I wish goalies didn't even make these lists. Add a sidebar where you rank the top ten separately.

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#8 Sanaa Montana
December 15 2012, 11:58AM
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What happens to the NHL rosters is the Union breaks up and all hell breaks lose?

Would the teams who have contracts with players have the first right to them?

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#9 DSF
December 15 2012, 12:04PM
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Sanaa Montana wrote:

What happens to the NHL rosters is the Union breaks up and all hell breaks lose?

Would the teams who have contracts with players have the first right to them?

No

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#10 Oiler Al
December 15 2012, 12:06PM
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@The Oilers Shot Clock

I dont know? I havent seen too many teams win games without a goalie in net. Franchises, build their teams from the goalie out in many cases. They are one of the most vital positions for a teams success. They should be part of the list, even, if teams don't like drafting them in the top 30.

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#11 Oiler Al
December 15 2012, 12:06PM
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@The Oilers Shot Clock

I dont know? I havent seen too many teams win games without a goalie in net. Franchises, build their teams from the goalie out in many cases. They are one of the most vital positions for a teams success. They should be part of the list, even, if teams don't like drafting them in the top 30.

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#12 Sanaa Montana
December 15 2012, 12:07PM
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Oh, and you have to rank Nail ahead of J Schu. J Schu is three years older and has taken his sweet time to develop. Two years ago no one heard or care much about J Schu but everyone knew Nail would be the sh!t. Now think where Nail will be in three years.

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#13 Sanaa Montana
December 15 2012, 12:08PM
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DSF wrote:

No

No?

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#14 David S
December 15 2012, 12:21PM
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Sanaa Montana wrote:

No?

NOOOO!!!! *Repetitive double fist pumps*

*Has no idea what's going on*

*Bored out of skull due to no NHL*

Eff you NHL.

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#15 DSF
December 15 2012, 12:24PM
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Sanaa Montana wrote:

No?

No.

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#16 Sanaa Montana
December 15 2012, 12:25PM
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@David S

No?

Not any.

no one

There is no water left.

No hot dogs were sold yesterday.

No customer personal data will be retained unless it is rendered anonymous.

Not any possibility or allowance.

No smoking

There's no stopping her once she gets going.

Not; not properly, not really; not fully.

My mother's no fool.

Working nine to five every day is no life.

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#17 OilersBrass
December 15 2012, 12:27PM
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Sanaa Montana wrote:

Oh, and you have to rank Nail ahead of J Schu. J Schu is three years older and has taken his sweet time to develop. Two years ago no one heard or care much about J Schu but everyone knew Nail would be the sh!t. Now think where Nail will be in three years.

Taken his sweet time? He chose to get an education before going pro, and there's only so much a person can develop playing hockey in University.

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#18 Sliderule
December 15 2012, 12:31PM
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Buttons list is ranked not by potential but who is best now.

Schultz is leading the AHL on steroids in scoring for cripes sake.He deserves to be number one.

The last defenceman to win the accuracy shooting at the all star game was Bourque.Schultz for my money will be the next.

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#19 Toro
December 15 2012, 12:33PM
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Ya kinda funny how Rielly is rated better then Yakupov, wonder why he wasn't drafted 1st overall then, or even 2nd ... Or 3rd .... Or 4th..... Must be to get the Leaf fans some hope.

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#20 jay
December 15 2012, 12:39PM
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its nice to be excited, but lets keep expectations reasonable. ahl is full of guys who put up huge numbers never to be heard from again

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#21 OilClog
December 15 2012, 12:40PM
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Yakupov is #2, Button makes some crazy choices, must be a close friend of milbury

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#22 Walter Sobchak
December 15 2012, 12:50PM
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Button know's where his money comes from that's why Rielly is ahead of Yakupov, you cant tell me the Leaf's would not have drafted Yakupov never mind what that moron Burke said.

Yakupov plays on a horrific team and was or is close to a point per, pretty impressive for a kid who just turned 19.

Yakupov might be the best of the kid's but not as good without them.

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#23 Chris
December 15 2012, 01:09PM
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Lowetide wrote:

Button is a former NHL GM and his entire family (Dad, brother) are scouting men. His Dad started the Central Scouting Bureau mid-70s. I think his lists are interesting in that they inform us about why scouting lists can be so different.

For me, Yakupov is clearly #1 based on his performance in the KHL at a young age. Schultz is an outstanding talent, but is also an older player. Can you imagine what Yakupov might do in the KHL at age 22?

Let's hope we don't get to find out what yakupov might do in the khl at 22!

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#24 They're $hittie
December 15 2012, 01:31PM
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OilClog wrote:

Yakupov is #2, Button makes some crazy choices, must be a close friend of milbury

yup

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#25 They're $hittie
December 15 2012, 01:35PM
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You guys this is Button, he is the stupidest man in hockey.

Mark Schiefilie is not better than huberdeau or strome. Some one please tell me what he does better than these guys. All his attention is because he is a jet. GO look at the draft again and figure out where you would draft him.

Brodin and Klefbom are a little high for my liking. They are playing higher level hockey or more of it but are injured so tough to gauge.

Button is a huge homer, and he gives extra points to canadian teams picks.

Yes Rielly is good, but watch how many of his shots get blocked. He may put up points but he wastes a lot of shots with the potential of the play going the other way.

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#26 dessert1111
December 15 2012, 01:43PM
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I'm always skeptical with Button's lists but the guy isn't afraid to go against the grain and a lot of times I think he looks smart in the end. He misses some too -- dropping Grigorenko as much as he did pre-draft was a bit much, I think -- but he appears to have compelling reasons why he sees things the way he does. Fifth is nothing to sneeze at, and he has Klefbom above Murray, so that's interesting.

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#27 Kent Wilson
December 15 2012, 02:43PM
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Flames have 2 players on the list.

This is totally foreign territory for me.

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#28 Professor Q
December 15 2012, 02:55PM
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Sliderule wrote:

Buttons list is ranked not by potential but who is best now.

Schultz is leading the AHL on steroids in scoring for cripes sake.He deserves to be number one.

The last defenceman to win the accuracy shooting at the all star game was Bourque.Schultz for my money will be the next.

Was it not Kaberle?

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#29 book¡e
December 15 2012, 03:55PM
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They're $hittie wrote:

yup

Yep?

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#30 book¡e
December 15 2012, 03:56PM
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You know what doesn't suck? - The debate as to whether the Oilers have the top two prospects or the top prospect and the 5th best prospect.

It's like the great Ice Cream vs Cake debate.

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#31 B S
December 15 2012, 04:28PM
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Button builds his list politically. He moves prospects up and down based on how much WOW factor it will add, and how much he can get away with and still be taken seriously. He seems rank players differently just to be different, and from all I've read by him, he ranks, then reasons why a player belongs there, often resulting in hypocritical rankings (Rielly high despite being injured, Grigorenko sick drops in the rankings). End result is that I don't take his rankings seriously.

With an obvious hometown bias I'd rank Schultz 1st and Yak 2nd. I'd also rank Huberdeau lower, but only because skilled-but-stupid is still stupid.

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#32 Wanyes bastard child
December 15 2012, 04:48PM
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@book¡e

Your a smart man, a lot smarter than me when it comes to these things, I was wondering if you could explain to me the current state of the negotiations?

Just a simple answer since being in the courts now I'm wondering if talks can still go on and something can be reached outside of court or what not.

Mainly I just want mah hockeyz :( and wondering if we are doomed now....

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#33 Oilertown
December 15 2012, 05:01PM
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Sanaa Montana wrote:

No?

You will have to excuse DSF I think he is probably pretty damn pissed right now that Schultz is rated number one and he didn't choose the Knuckleheads.

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#34 They're $hittie
December 15 2012, 05:14PM
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@Oilertown

ya he is probably not happy about the granlund and brodin ranking. I wonder how the SB nation wild site is taking it. The seem to think granlund is going to be the best player in the nhl.

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#35 DSF
December 15 2012, 06:06PM
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They're $hittie wrote:

ya he is probably not happy about the granlund and brodin ranking. I wonder how the SB nation wild site is taking it. The seem to think granlund is going to be the best player in the nhl.

Not at all.

Granlund and Brodin are right about where I would peg them.

Thing is, the Wild prospect depth doesn't stop there.

With Granlund, Brodin, Coyle, Zucker, Phillips, Larsson, Graovac, Genoway and Dumba, the Wild prospect cupboard is bulging while the Oilers have just the high end kids and a lot of meh.

You'll notice the Houston Aeros are ahead of the Barons in the AHL standings.

There's a reason for that.

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#36 Max Powers - Team HME Evans
December 15 2012, 06:28PM
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@DSF

What would your prospect ranking be, DSF? It seems to me not too long ago someone asked you that in the comments section and you listed Yakupov as #5, Huberdeau #1 and Granlund somewhere in between there. Care to elaborate?

A list of 1-10 would be awesome, if you were generous enough to bless us with your wisdom.

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#37 RyanCoke
December 15 2012, 06:38PM
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I always took buttons lists and analysis with a grain of salt. He is an idiot IMO and anyone of us regular old fans can put a list together that is more accurate than his and analyze hockey better than him.

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#38 DSF
December 15 2012, 06:51PM
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@Max Powers - Team HME Evans

Tough to do since I haven't seen some of them play but I'll give it a go with that proviso.

These things evolve as a season progresses and injuries always have an effect.

1) Schultz (exceeding everyones expecations)

2) Galchenyuk (almost 2PPG in the OHL)

3) Tarasenko (killing the K)

4) Rielly (turning into a dominant defensemen and much younger than Schultz)

5) Yakupov (obvious skill but very inconsitent in the KHL)

6) Baertschi (putting up good numbers on a VERY defensive team

7) Huberdeau (not having a great season but apparently quite a leader)

8) Ryan Strome (killing the OHL - 62 points in 32 GP)

9) Granlund (would be much higher without the injury)

10) Brett Ritchie (27 goals in 32GP)

I can't rank Kuznetsov since I've never seen him play and he apparently doesn't want to play in the NHL in any case.

Honourable mentions to Dougie Hamilton, Mark Schiefle and Jonas Brodin who could also have cracked the top ten if not injured.

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#39 They're $hittie
December 15 2012, 07:00PM
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@DSF

Pretty good list DSF

Mine would be

1) Schultz 2) Taresenko (because he is older) 3) Yakupov 4) Strome (too much offense) 5) Huberdeau 6) Hamilton 7) Murray 8) Granlund 9) Galchenyuk (lower because his offense is not where stromes was even pre-draft, still good with out yak) 10) Reilly

Dishonorable mention... Schiefilie, so over rated because he is a jet.

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#40 Oilertown
December 15 2012, 07:02PM
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DSF wrote:

Tough to do since I haven't seen some of them play but I'll give it a go with that proviso.

These things evolve as a season progresses and injuries always have an effect.

1) Schultz (exceeding everyones expecations)

2) Galchenyuk (almost 2PPG in the OHL)

3) Tarasenko (killing the K)

4) Rielly (turning into a dominant defensemen and much younger than Schultz)

5) Yakupov (obvious skill but very inconsitent in the KHL)

6) Baertschi (putting up good numbers on a VERY defensive team

7) Huberdeau (not having a great season but apparently quite a leader)

8) Ryan Strome (killing the OHL - 62 points in 32 GP)

9) Granlund (would be much higher without the injury)

10) Brett Ritchie (27 goals in 32GP)

I can't rank Kuznetsov since I've never seen him play and he apparently doesn't want to play in the NHL in any case.

Honourable mentions to Dougie Hamilton, Mark Schiefle and Jonas Brodin who could also have cracked the top ten if not injured.

Wow and you don't think Yak would be putting up almost 2 PPG in the OHL if he was still there Galchenyuk would have no where near the numbers Yakupov has in the KHL this year. Your reaching again as per usual. So that would put Yakupov second on your list.

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#41 Time Travelling Sean
December 15 2012, 07:11PM
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Nail is 19 years old playing for a poor team against men and you flak him for being inconsistent? When he has 10 goals and 18 points in 22 games?

Some of our prospects are good, I'd rather have Harti, a 6th round pick, than Coyle, a first round pick, who they traded for.

Maggie isn't doing much, scoring wise, but he has other facets in his game that can make him a good player on a good team, and it's not like he is the only one in the NHL with a sub 10% shooting percentage, see Zetterberg, Clutterbuck, or Landeskog. All good overall players.

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#42 DSF
December 15 2012, 07:13PM
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Oilertown wrote:

Wow and you don't think Yak would be putting up almost 2 PPG in the OHL if he was still there Galchenyuk would have no where near the numbers Yakupov has in the KHL this year. Your reaching again as per usual. So that would put Yakupov second on your list.

You have no idea what Galchenyuk would be doing the KHL.

Thing is, he IS doing it in the OHL.

I've always thought Galchenyuk would have been a better pick.

We'll see when they go head to head, if that ever happens.

Given how the CBA talks are going, Yakupov may never play in the NHL.

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#43 DSF
December 15 2012, 07:24PM
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Time Travelling Sean wrote:

Nail is 19 years old playing for a poor team against men and you flak him for being inconsistent? When he has 10 goals and 18 points in 22 games?

Some of our prospects are good, I'd rather have Harti, a 6th round pick, than Coyle, a first round pick, who they traded for.

Maggie isn't doing much, scoring wise, but he has other facets in his game that can make him a good player on a good team, and it's not like he is the only one in the NHL with a sub 10% shooting percentage, see Zetterberg, Clutterbuck, or Landeskog. All good overall players.

Tarasenko has 11 goals and 25 points in 23 games. Nuff said.

Hartikainen is 2 years older than Coyle and is certainly no longer a "prospect" for this exercise.

I have no doubt that Coyle will outperform him in the future.

Paajarvi's shooting percentage is not "sub 10%". It's barely over half that.

Zetterburg's career shooting percentage is 10.9%.

Clutterbuck's is 9.3%

Landeskog's is 8.1%

Paajarvi's is 6.6%

One of these is not like the others.

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#44 Max Powers - Team HME Evans
December 15 2012, 07:52PM
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@DSF

Significantly different than the original list...

On another note I'm surprised button didn't include Dumba, since he had such a rager for him all year last year.

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#45 Wanye
December 15 2012, 08:13PM
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David S wrote:

NOOOO!!!! *Repetitive double fist pumps*

*Has no idea what's going on*

*Bored out of skull due to no NHL*

Eff you NHL.

^^^THIS

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#46 Quintana
December 15 2012, 08:14PM
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DSF wrote:

Tarasenko has 11 goals and 25 points in 23 games. Nuff said.

Hartikainen is 2 years older than Coyle and is certainly no longer a "prospect" for this exercise.

I have no doubt that Coyle will outperform him in the future.

Paajarvi's shooting percentage is not "sub 10%". It's barely over half that.

Zetterburg's career shooting percentage is 10.9%.

Clutterbuck's is 9.3%

Landeskog's is 8.1%

Paajarvi's is 6.6%

One of these is not like the others.

DSF......Tarasenko is 2 years older than Yakupov playing in a much stronger team than him.....You have no doubt that coyle will outperform Harti....is that for sure? Like when you said that Schultz would never be an Oiler?

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#47 Walter Sobchak
December 15 2012, 08:16PM
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@Kent Wilson

Don't worry Kent, the Flames will soon have many, many prospect on that list!

Just kidding......well, not really, it is the Flames. A preemptive jab at them.

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#48 Time Travelling Sean
December 15 2012, 08:21PM
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@DSF

Tarasenko is 21 playing with Kolvachuk on a very good team. Nail is 19 playing with? On a below .500 team.

If Nail were 21 playing in the KHL, he'll be more like Kovie is to Tarasenko then Tarasenko is to Kovie.

Teemu is 22 and has actually played games in the NHL.

If Coyle plays more games then Harti, and plays better than Harti, I'll be surprised, seeing as he's 20 and he's still playing junior, on a structured team getting cookie minutes against 17 year olds.

Also the difference between 6.6% and 8.1% is, for 200 shots, 13.2 goals to 16.2 goals.

We knew when we drafted Maggie he was a peripheral shooter/player. We didn't draft him to score 25 goals a season, although I was expecting a little more.

His future in the NHL doesn't end in his first 3 seasons though.

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#49 Walter Sobchak
December 15 2012, 08:31PM
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DSF wrote:

You have no idea what Galchenyuk would be doing the KHL.

Thing is, he IS doing it in the OHL.

I've always thought Galchenyuk would have been a better pick.

We'll see when they go head to head, if that ever happens.

Given how the CBA talks are going, Yakupov may never play in the NHL.

This is true, What DSF day's here is correct. Galley is ripping it up.

I personally still would have picked Yakupov over Galchenyuk but I think it's bloody close.

Being an Oiler fan I have an obvious biases towards The team , however the Oilers could use Galchenyuk more then Yakupov as much as it hurts to admit it.

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#50 Oilertown
December 15 2012, 09:51PM
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Walter Sobchak wrote:

This is true, What DSF day's here is correct. Galley is ripping it up.

I personally still would have picked Yakupov over Galchenyuk but I think it's bloody close.

Being an Oiler fan I have an obvious biases towards The team , however the Oilers could use Galchenyuk more then Yakupov as much as it hurts to admit it.

I think Galchenyuk will most likely be a 60-70 point player in the NHL. Yakupov is going to be a monster I see 80-100 with a great physical side to his game. Think Ovechkin.

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