Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Nail Yakupov: No. 1 with a Bullett

By Larry Wigge

Nail Yakupov wears the uniform No. 10 as a reminder of how much the dynamic Pavel Bure affected his life and career. However ...

His first step and ability to control bouncing pucks, knock them down and make a play are the best of any of the guys in the draft. He really gets up to top speed very quickly and his hands are outstanding. Like Pavel Bure, Yakupov is dangerous every shift. He may not have been dominant on every shift like Bure was, but he created something every shift ... you have to be aware where he is on the ice all the time.

That assessment came from the Central Scouting Bureau. Positive. Intriguing. Sounds like the first pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in Pittsburgh on Friday night.

Said Yakupov, "I'm not like Bure or like Alexander Semin or Alex Ovechkin. All players in this world play different. I want to be Nail and that's it."

Whether it's the Edmonton Oilers who select No. 1 -- or somebody else -- it's clearly becoming obvious that Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey Association is their man.

In his first season in North America with the Sting, Yakupov totaled 49 goals and 52 assists for 101 points in 65 games. That shattered the rookie records of Steven Stamkos, himself a No. 1 overall pick in 2008. This season, despite a knee injury that kept him out for five weeks and a concussion scare, Nail finished with 31 goals and 38 assists in 42 games.

At the recent scouting combine, NHL executives combined to give Yakupov a glowing report -- despite his size: He’s a shade under 5-foot-11, but is a solid 190 pounds..

"The explosiveness he brings, he's a major league talent," Phoenix GM Don Maloney said. "We all know it. He reminds me of a Pavel Bure-type player. He moves quick, moves the puck well so, yeah, he's exciting to watch."

The Columbus Blue Jackets, picking second and just waiting to pounce on Yakupov were represented by Tyler Wright, director of amateur scouting.

"He's a very exciting player, for sure," Wright said. "Dynamic. Game-changing. Absolutely. Very high-end skill.

"He had a couple of injuries this year, but over the last couple of years, he's done stuff that ... he broke Stamkos' record for a rookie. He's done some pretty amazing stuff.

"I'm not saying he's Stamkos, by any means, but when you're that high-end, explosive guy, who knows what the limit is?"

In the process, Nail Yakupov would become the Euro and Russian picked No. 1 since Ovechkin was picked by the Washington Capitals in 2004 -- ending years of fears that Russian players are available and not tied up to the rival Kontinental Hockey League.

The Oilers, picking first overall for the third consecutive year after taking Taylor Hall over Tyler Seguin in 2010 and selecting Ryan Nugent-Hopkins last season, might soon be looking at the glory days of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson from the high-flying offensive team Edmonton had in the 1980s.

His knowledge of Edmonton Oilers history was a little shaky, which is to be expected given that  Yakupov has spent only two seasons away from his home in Nizhnekamsk, Russia.

On a recent trip to Edmonton, Yakupov said, "I saw the pictures and the Stanley Cups. It was great. Gretzky and Messier and Kurri. I think I'll sleep in the dressing room for a couple of hours."

The Oilers were either thinking about taking one of the top defenseman or being secretive.

"Getting to know Yakupov is going to be big going forward," said Oilers GM Steve Tambellini. "When I talked to Taylor Hall, he was very comfortable talking about being the No. 1 pick. If you are the first overall pick, playing in a Canadian market, you have to have special qualities. You have to have maturity and confidence. You have to have courage, aside from all the talent.

"Same thing happened with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, only in a different way. His poise came through. He wasn't fazed by anything. He's a humble, thoughtful young man, confident beyond his years in a great way. He exudes leadership.

"That's what you have to find out, whether they're from Russia or Sweden or Canada. We have to know what Yakupov's family is like, what his teammates think of him, his coaches ...

"How does he react to this scrutiny?"

On the surface, Yakupov responds to scrutiny just fine. 

"The best way to describe him is to say he has a flair," said former Calgary GM Craig Button. “When you watched him on the ice, he stands out. There's the potential for excitement every time he steps on the ice.

"He lost an elite center (Alex Galchenyuk), and that forced him to play a different game. He had to work harder to do some things on his own."

Yakupov is the most exotic player in the draft. He's an ethnic Tatar and a Muslim from Nizhnekamsk, which is 500 miles east of Moscow. He didn't speak any English when he arrived in Canada to play for the Ontario Hockey League's Sarnia Sting two years ago, but his transition to North America was made easier because he lived with the family of teammate Alexander Galchenyuk, an American with Belarusian ties.

Today, Yakupov speaks very good English and also showed a sense of humour during interviews that were part of the NHL combine this month.

When asked by one reporter whether he had a girlfriend, Yakupov replied: "I have two, one in Russia and one in Sarnia."

Well, no one every told him that one girl per customer. 

Rail Yakupov is Nefthekhimik coach and Nail's father. He was tough on the youngster. 

"I started skating when I was 3 years old. My dad was a coach," said Yakupov. "I grew up playing in Nizhnekamsk and really loved it. Ever since my mom and dad put on Dynamo hockey skates on me all I have known was hockey. A rink was a 10 minute walk from our house, so I spent all my time there.

"I also went to a lot of Neftekhimik games. That's my team. And even though I am playing in Canada now, I keep following my team, always check on the scores, read the news about them. I know a lot of the guys playing for Neftekhimik now, because I started playing with a lot of them, I also train with them in the offseason."

We've become familiar with the names Alexander, Pavel, Sergei, Mikhail or Evgeni from recent Russian-born players. Where did Nail come from?

"I don't have a story about my name," Nail Yakupov said. "It's not like I had a great grandfather who was a hero and I was named after him. My parents just that name and that's it."

In Russian, Nail stands for "The one who achieves success."

Nail Yakupov is ready to live up to his name. 

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