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Nail Yakupov's star is on the rise

7/18/2011

Put simply, if the 2012 draft were held tomorrow, Nail Yakupov would go first overall. And there's a good shot that if he had been eligible for the 2011 draft (his birthday fell only a few weeks after the eligibility cutoff), he would have been a few teams' pick over Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or in the mix for the top five at the very least. Perhaps even more impressive, he has shown the talent and commitment to play in North America that could thaw the deep freeze between NHL general managers and Russian prospects in recent years.

The biggest reason for the latter point is that Yakupov pushed away the comfort and money (certainly seven figures) that staying in Russia could provide. Instead he traveled to North America to play with the Sarnia Sting, Steven Stamkos' old team, in the Ontario Hockey League, a considerable move west and an almost unimaginable cultural shock. Even going to play in Moscow would have been a move west for Yakupov. He hails from Tatarstan, 500 miles east of Moscow and even farther removed from the prevailing Russian hockey culture. Tatarstan has turned out no elite hockey talent over the 60-year history of Soviet/Russian hockey, and Yakupov could be the game's first breakout Muslim star. (By his own admission in a phone interview from Moscow, where he was working in a hockey school a few weeks ago, Yakupov does not "go to the mosque very often," but is a proud Tatar.)

It's a unique path to be sure, but one befitting a player of Yakupov's incomparable skills, particularly his skating.

"The only player you could compare him to at the same stage in terms of skating is [Ilya] Kovalchuk," said one veteran scout, who's based in Ontario and saw Yakupov nine times last season. "In terms of straight ahead speed, Yakupov might even be more explosive. Kovalchuk was a freight train -- a bigger player and more powerful. But you couldn't even mention the top junior prospects in the same sentence as Yakupov when you're talking about pure skating at age 18, be it [Alex] Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby."

Speed is the conspicuous component of Yakupov's game. Even at something below Yakupov's top gear, he has a lot of game and smarts and a pedal that's always pressed to the floor. But at 18 there was once another Russian who possessed his high-end skating: Nikolai Zherdev. Moral of that story: Skating in the absence of hockey sense and character isn't enough. Zherdev, the fourth overall pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2003 draft, is a career enigma. At 18, Zherdev had frequently exhibited the ability to skate around nine guys (five opposing skaters and four of his teammates). Yakupov is not Zherdev. That much is clear from the way he's adapted after coming to Sarnia.

"A couple of things really made Nail's season remarkable," said former NHLer Trevor Letowski, who was an assistant coach in Sarnia last season. "One, he had to make an adjustment to the North American game, which he had never even really seen, never mind played in. He had a steep learning curve. Two, other teams knew he was coming but when they tried to shut him down he'd still find a way to score."

The second point is the important one. On a weak Sarnia team, Yakupov and Alexander Galchenyuk, another rookie Russian, were just about the lone threats to score. Still, players two and three years older them, a lot of them NHL draftees, had no solutions. Yakupov broke Stamkos' team record for rookie scoring. His numbers outstripped Taylor Hall's and those of Nugent-Hopkins at the same stage.

But his game isn't defined strictly by speed and scoring. Other OHL players express disbelief when told Yakupov is listed at 170 pounds. Not only does he handle big hits but once hit he'll take the physical game to bigger opponents.

Yakupov could be the biggest talent to come along since Crosby, but some general managers would need some mild sedation to draft him simply because of what is branded "the Russian factor" -- the prospect of spending a valued first overall pick on a player who might walk away to play in the Kontential Hockey League. It has been about a hockey generation since Russia has been a territory in which you'd consider spending a top-10 pick on a Russian, no matter the talent, given the strained and unsettled relationships between the NHL, the International Ice Hockey Federation, the KHL and the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. But Yakupov's willingness to put in two seasons in the OHL before his draft year provides some measure of commitment to play in North America -- thought it's still short of a guarantee. There's a leap of faith that GMs will only take after due diligence.

The rumor of the spring was Yakupov was going back to Russia this season, in part because of the money that the KHL would throw at him and in part because he might not seem to have a lot to learn in major-junior. Igor Larionov, Yakupov's agent, shot down the rumor. "Whatever gets him to the NHL fastest and best-prepared is what he's going to do," said Larionov, a Hockey Hall of Famer. Yakupov's decision to return to Sarnia helps him on two fronts: He has following the conventional wisdom that major-junior is the express lane to the NHL, and any commitment to the KHL could result in a messy contractual hassle that would complicate his signing with an NHL team. The perception that Russian players follow the cash doesn't fit with Yakupov. In fact, "My family sends me money each month," he said.

Yakupov benefits from the presence of Galchenyuk on the ice and Galchenyuk's family away from the arena. Galchenyuk is a playmaking center whose game nicely complements Yakupov's. Galchenyuk's father played pro hockey in North America so his son is familiar with the game and lifestyle here. The Galchenyuks made a commitment such as Yakupov's: whatever it was going to take to get to the NHL. They moved to Chicago for the 2009-10 season so Galchenyuk could play in an elite U.S. midget-age league. The family rented a house in Sarnia last year and took in Yakupov as a boarder. That figures to be the setup again this season. "When we're not at the arena, we're at home, working out on [a program set up] by Alex's father," Yakupov said.

That could have been an isolating factor in some ways but it hasn't turned out that way. "Nail's one of the more popular kids on the team," Letowski said. "He's not a live wire but he does his best to blend in and he has picked up a lot of the language pretty quickly."

If he picks up the cultural component like he has mastered the hockey end, he'll be giving English lessons this season.