October 27, 2011
The International Central Scouting service released their October prospects list for the 2012 NHL Draft. Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting is the No. 1 name on virtually every prospects list. It is possible that Yakupov will become the third Russian ever to be selected first overall in an NHL entry draft. Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) was the first, and Alex Ovechkin(notes) was the second.
Both Kovalchuk and Ovechkin were stars in Russia when they were drafted. Both played for the first teams in the old Superleague, not the juniors. Ovechkin even won the Superleague title with Dynamo Moscow in 2005 before coming to the NHL.
Nail Yakupov is different. Hardly anyone knows him in Russia. He came to Canada from a Russian junior team with no Big League experience. It is even fair to say that more people in North America know about him than in his native country.
The most memorable thing about him here in North America? Probably his name. The name "Nail" is of Arabic origin and means "reaching" or "achieving" or "gaining success." Quite fitting for Yakupov.
Who could he be compared to?
"That's a good question," TSN's Bob McKenzie told me last week. "You can't say Ovechkin because he is not as physical or as powerful. He will get his nose dirty to score a goal. But he won't necessarily overpower you the way Ovechkin did. The very first time you see Ovechkin, we saw him as a 17 year old, the thing that impressed you was not just that he was fast, he could score goals and had a great shot, but that he ran people over. There's a difference in that. But I am not sure there is a Russian winger that he could be compared to. I don't want to say Semin either. I don't have a good answer for you on that."
"He reminds me of Bure," Russian National Junior Team head coach Valeri Bragin told Sovetsky Sport's Pavel Lysenkov on Monday. "He is just as quick, a good goal-scoring winger. He is not as big as Ovechkin or Kovalchuk were when they were drafted, but he is very quick. I am really looking forward to playing him for the National Team after not having seen him play a year."
In the last few years NHL teams are reluctant to draft Russian players high in the draft due to the so-called "Russian Factor," whether that fear is right or wrong. But Yakupov won't be affected by it.
According to Bob McKenzie:
"I think the so-called 'Russian Factor' is probably a little less prevalent with the first overall pick. Especially if that first overall pick is clearly the best guy. Seven out of ten scouts that I surveyed said he is clearly the number one guy. As long as a player doesn't send off any bad signals like he doesn't want to play in the NHL. Or 'I don't want to play for this team. I don't want to play for that team.' As long as there are no negative vibrations coming from the player, and, usually, if the first overall guy is clearly better than the next guy, then that whole 'Russian Factor' is probably less of a factor," he said.
"I would think the Russian factor would probably be a bigger consideration for a guy like [Mikhail] Grigorenko, even though he is here playing. Because the difference between Grigorenko and [Filip] Forsberg, or Grigorenko and the big Canadian or big American defensemen who are available this year, that difference may not be so great. So that's where teams may say 'Do we take a Russian center who, if things don't go well, might go back to the KHL. Or do we take Forsberg or someone else.'
"Whereas if you're picking first overall and your scouts say Yakupov is by far the best player available, then you're going to be less concerned about the Russian thing."
So, who is Nail Yakupov? I caught up with him not long ago to hear his story.
"I started skating when I was 3 years old. My dad was a coach. I played for two teams when I was growing up: with those born in 1992 and 1993. 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," said Yakupov.
"I also went to a lot of Neftekhimik [KHL team] 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 went into detail about this career:
Q. You were in their system playing for the junior team, but you still decided to go play junior hockey in Canada. Was this a planned step?
YAKUPOV: "Yes, of course. At the time I was not ready, was not experienced enough to play in the KHL. But at the same time I wanted a lot more ice time, I wanted to play more. Also, I started working with Igor Larionov who saw me play. And people like Igor Larionov don't come around every day. He was a great hockey player and knows a lot about the game, so as soon as he called I packed up and went to play in Canada.
"I have always liked Canadian hockey: the speed, the movement, the atmosphere. I like everything about playing here and I don't regret anything."
So, you didn't even consider trying yourself in the KHL before you left?
"Well, I knew I had it in me to play in the KHL. I also played for the National Team. I think I could have played in the KHL. But I really wanted to play in Canada and also, at the time, I had already given my word that I would play there. My agent Igor Larionov is always around, giving me advice. At the same time I don't know if I would have got the same opportunity, the same ice time as I get here had I stayed in the KHL. I was assured that I would play here. I like everything here. I don't have any regrets.
"I always wanted to play in Canada. That doesn't mean I don't like my home team in Russia. They are still my team. But it is never too late to come back, and I want to try myself here in Canada. I was given this opportunity and it would have been wrong not to seize it."
What is it like working with Igor Larionov?
"The first time I saw him when he came to my home I was star struck, I didn't quite comprehend what was going on. But then everything settled. First of all, he is a great person, easy to be around. Second of all, he knows hockey, he always helps me out with advice. It's a pleasure to work with him."
Will you play for Russia in this year's World Junior Championships?
"Well, I was invited to play for the National Team in the Subway Series in Ottawa. I have to prove myself, I have to show that I am good enough to play at the World Junior Championships. Of course I want to play for the National Team. It is a huge honor. I know most of the guys on that team, we played together for a long time before. Putting on a national team jersey is always something special."
Why are there so many young players leaving Russia to play in the juniors in Canada? Is it because they don't feel they will get a chance in the KHL?
"Yes, partially. Every coach is worried about the result and there are quite a few close games where young players probably won't be trusted to play, so older players get the ice time. So, it is understandable why coaches to that. And at the same time the Russian Junior League is not as strong as the Canadian leagues yet, so many younger players come here because hockey is more intense and you get a lot of chances, you play a lot. The quality of hockey is great, the organization is great. You practice as much as you want, you play a lot. You can grow. What's not to like?"
More and more people are saying you will be the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. Does it put any pressure on you?
"Not at all. Every day I do everything as usual: I practice, I work out, I eat. I try not to think about the draft. When that day comes, then we will see how everything is going to turn out. And right now I am trying to enjoy myself, I am trying to play my best without putting any extra pressure on myself that has to do with the draft."
Being first overall must mean something to you?
"Being at the NHL draft already means a lot. And of course being the first overall pick is an honor. It would be great, of course. But still, someone who is picked in the sixth round, for example, will still get the same chance as you. Both will be given an opportunity to show what you've got. When you're drafted, you're given a chance. And then it's up to you what you do with that chance. Only time will tell."
Do you think that fact that you are Russian will hurt you? There is the so-called "Russian Factor" present at the draft.
"I don't think it will hurt me. I honestly don't think it matters. As far as someone being afraid that Russian players will leave, that's why we are playing here. And it's not even my first year, but my second one already. You also have an agent who talks to scouts. As for me personally, if I am given a chance to try myself in the NHL, I will certainly try myself in the NHL. Yes, if you are playing in the KHL, then teams are afraid when they pick you. But if not, like I, I would rather try to play in the NHL. It is never too late to go back to Russia. But I can't control what someone may be afraid of. I will just do the best that I personally can, whatever depends on me, to be the best player, to be the number one draft pick."
Did you have a favorite NHL team growing up?
"I really liked some player. Pavel Bure was my favorite. I still remember him play. As for teams, I really like watching Vancouver, Pittsburgh and Detroit play. But I just like any hockey. I watch hockey at home regardless of what teams are playing."
Are you following this NHL season even closer, especially the teams that are not doing well, to see where you may end up?
"Not at all. And even then it is too difficult to say who the outsiders will be because the season only started a few weeks ago. I just enjoy watching NHL hockey. And I honestly didn't even think what team I will end up in. I will be happy to play for any NHL team."