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Tempering expectations for Nail Yakupov

11/13/2012

SARNIA, Ontario -- For most of Monday evening's Super Series game against the OHL's best, Nail Yakupov had very little space on the ice. No moment better demonstrated that than when Washington Capitals prospect Tom Wilson lined up Yakupov in open ice, sending him onto his rear and breaking his helmet.

"That was nothing tough. It's OK," Yakupov said after the OHL's 2-1 win. "It's hockey out there."

It was the most visible display of Wilson's efforts to contain the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, but the plan also included an evening's worth of trash-talk. Wilson was as relentless running his mouth as his teammates were stingy in giving Yakupov room to operate.

"On the ice, I don't know what [Wilson's] going to do. Some words stupid," Yakupov said. "Who cares? Just play hockey."

In the end, Yakupov's conclusion, in a second language he's learned remarkably well, was a simple but a great summation of the night.

"Always tough [to] play against Canadian guys," he said.

It's a taste of what's ahead in the NHL for the skilled but still developing future star. He ended up scoring a late goal in this game, a great example of the notion that Yakupov doesn't need much daylight to eventually make an impact on the game. But the goal was too late, with Canada's second goal the back-breaker -- a goal Yakupov pinned on himself.

"That was my goal," he said. "I didn't see a player."

In just one game, we saw a little bit of everything from Yakupov. We saw that he can be contained, even neutralized, with the right mix of defensive attention and physical play. We saw room for improvement for his play without the puck. And we saw, in light of it all, a player who needed very little time and space to make an impact.

It all raises the question: What's a reasonable expectation for a player whose NHL debut is so widely anticipated by fans in Edmonton?

For now, the lockout has removed the NHL from Yakupov's immediate focus, with the Super Series and KHL now drawing his attention.

"There's not NHL now," he said when we chatted on Sunday morning. "For now, I worry about my [Russian] team and my hometown team."

But it's his performance with his hometown team that might be raising expectations unrealistically high for Yakupov. In 13 games with Nizhnekamsk in the KHL, Yakupov has 10 goals. It's incredible production for a 19-year-old playing among men, including some of the best players in the world who joined the KHL during the lockout.

While the Oilers would certainly take that kind of production, they certainly aren't expecting it when his rookie season eventually arrives.

"The NHL is its own animal," said Oilers GM Steve Tambellini when we chatted for a future ESPN The Magazine piece on Yakupov. "It's the best of the best. There's no reason why over his career he's not going to have great success. I think you have to temper it a little bit and say he's a very young guy."

In chatting with NHL scouts regarding Yakupov's immediate future in the NHL, there were concerns that suggested tempering expectations was a very reasonable idea.

More than one team said they had other players No. 1 on their draft board, with Ryan Murray, Alex Galchenyuk, Griffin Reinhart and Morgan Rielly's names mentioned as better options. They pointed out that it's not a knock on Yakupov's skill, but instead a preference in position. Picking that high, other teams preferred a franchise defenseman or center rather than a high-scoring winger.

That debate found its way into the Edmonton war room as well.

"Oh, absolutely. We went through all those things," Tambellini said. "We had a lot of battles over that."

In Edmonton, skill won the debate.

"When you saw that player, how strong he was and what he does best, how do you pass that up?" Tambellini said.

Now we wait to see how that skill translates to a full NHL season. When asked to set an over/under on goals for Yakupov during a shortened 65-game season, one scout paused for a moment and considered it before projecting numbers lower than you might expect: 15 goals and 15 assists. By comparison, future teammate Taylor Hall scored 22 goals his rookie season in 65 games.

Yakupov will be entering a different environment in Edmonton than Hall had when he arrived. The Oilers must make serious progress in the standings this season. Rebuilding is over, and this talented young group has to show signs that they're a playoff team or something close to it. Ralph Krueger may be inclined to lean on his more experienced players this season rather than on a teenager still learning how to succeed in the NHL.

Another scout raised concerns that Yakupov is joining a young Oilers team that doesn't have enough veteran leaders in place to help his transition to the league and teach him how to play the game the right way.

Scouts still see a player who is too individualistic for their tastes, trying to do too much on his own.

Yakupov's mentor and agent Igor Larionov bristled a bit when I suggested that to him, pointing out that Yakupov hasn't always been surrounded with equal talent around him. He anticipates Yakupov using his teammates more effectively when he plays in the NHL and is surrounded by talent like Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Ales Hemsky and others.

For most of his life, Yakupov has been the best player on the ice, which leads to a tendency to rely on one-on-one skills to make things happen. That should change when he's surrounded by the Oilers' talented young core.

On Saturday, Yakupov sat in his Sarnia hotel room and watched Oklahoma City and his future teammates play on television in the AHL. Larionov said the AHL was his first choice for a lockout destination but rules prevented Yakupov from joining the talented Barons.

"They play good," Yakupov said. "They're working hard. The AHL is a pretty good league too."

Yakupov is also working hard. Aside from his natural skill, that's another variable the Oilers have to feel good about. He loves to be at the rink and has been relentless in his off-ice training during the lockout. He already has the physical strength to compete among men, and the drive to become an elite goal scorer and star in the NHL.

His eye-opening numbers in the KHL may raise expectations this season a little too high, but Edmonton expects him to eventually grow into that kind of player in the NHL.

"There will be some transition. Whether it's a month, a year, whatever, I don't know," Tambellini said. "He has the skill set to be an impact player for sure."