Nail Yakupov Defined
By Brendan Ross (@rossyyoungblood)
The hockey world and its fans are in constant pursuit of the next budding superstar to root and cheer for. The 2004 NHL Entry Draft marked the last time a non-North American player was selected first overall when the Washington Capitals won the draft lottery and selected superstar sniper Alexander Ovechkin in the number one slot. The seven-year streak of North American first overall picks is likely to end as the 2012 NHL Draft nears and it is another potential Russian superstar heading his draft class that will end cease the streak. Playing in the border town of Sarnia, Ontario, Nail Yakupov is truly a special talent worth the price of admission game in and game out.
The Sarnia Sting selected Nail Yakupov second overall in the 2010 Canadian Hockey League import draft after the WHL’s Prince George Cougars opted for defenseman Martin Marincin with the first selection. Playing for his hometown team of Reaktor Nizhnekamsk in the Russian junior league (MHL), Yakupov was exactly the type of player the Sarnia Sting needed to energize a dwindling fan base after the loss of star forward Steven Stamkos. The City of Sarnia quickly welcomed the speedy Yakupov as he teamed up with Russian born linemate Alex Galchenyuk and formed instant chemistry on and off the ice. Yakupov’s presence in the lineup has encouraged an organization and pushed management into developing the team into a contender that has had struggled for success in their seventeen year history.
Entering his NHL draft year, scouts have flocked to Sarnia’s RBC Centre in hopes of catching a glimpse of the NHL’s next star forward. Personally, Yakupov has impressed me enough to dub him the best potential first overall pick since Sidney Crosby was selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005. Of course, Yakupov has a long ways to go and loads of hard work to reach those elite levels so it is certainly not a given that he can solidify himself into that elite tier of players but Nail is trending in that direction. Last season, Nail Yakupov racked up 49 goals and 101 points in 65 OHL games placing him fourth among all Ontario Hockey Leaguers. Yakupov’s strong rookie season earned him unanimous CHL Rookie of the Year honours and a place on the OHL’s First All-Rookie Team. Yakupov also impressed the Sarnia Sting fans last season when he broke the Sting rookie scoring record formerly held by Steven Stamkos (42G, 50A, 90P).
The Russian Under-18 World Junior team came calling for Yakupov’s services last spring for the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament and appointed him as the country’s alternate team captain. The dynamic Russian elevated his game in the way that star players often do and scored pivotal goals in Russia’s Bronze medal win over Canada. Yakupov finished the game with a hat trick of goals and earned heavy praise from Canada’s Head Coach Mike Williamson. “(Yakupov) was very dynamic,” Williamson noted. “We had a tough time solving him. We tried to take the time and space away. We tried to be physical on him. He’s a good player, evasive and elusive, and because of that we weren’t able to contain him.” (The Canadian Press via TSN).
The high-flying winger finished the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament with six goals and thirteen points in seven tournament games.
Nail Yakupov entered the 2011-2012 Ontario Hockey League season with sky-high expectations from everyone in the hockey world. Fans of struggling NHL teams have started their own “Fail for Nail” campaigns in hopes that their teams tank for the services of this offensively potent hockey star in the making. Unfortunately, Nail’s partner in crime Alex Galchenyuk was injured late in preseason action and Yakupov has been forced to play without his linemate. Often when two stars play together the old “chicken and the egg” debate usually ensues. Does playing with Galchenyuk inflate Nail Yakupov’s offensive production? Nail Yakupov has put those questions to rest in the absence of Galchenyuk (who had fantastic chemistry with Nail) with his strong start posting five goals and fifteen assists for twenty points in only eight games to date.
Nail Yakupov has shown what scouts love to see and that is the ability to overcome what some felt were his flaws. Last season, the biggest knocks on Yakupov’s game were that he does not utilize his teammates enough, he is often caught cheating in the defensive zone and the usual “he does not have the size to succeed at the NHL level” critique. Fast forward to present time and Nail’s game has seen a strong transformation in the areas where he was criticized last season.
Sarnia’s new Head Coach, Jacques Beaulieu, stresses the importance of team defense and the young Tatar has bought into the coach’s philosophy. In his freshman season, one could easily observe Yakupov floating just outside of the defensive zone waiting for a breakaway pass but Nail appears to be taking more calculated risks this season. In fact, the Sarnia right winger is being utilized as their first choice breakout option and Yakupov is often the last forward exiting the zone. Nail has shown a commitment to defensive zone coverage and with his speed, acceleration and elusiveness, Yakupov still has the ability to explode past defenders and create scoring opportunities.
In Yakupov’s rookie season the critics loved to flag Nail as a shoot-only type of player. There is little doubt that one of Yakupov’s best assets is his wicked release and highly accurate shot but Nail’s playmaking abilities have been vastly underrated. Yakupov has elite vision and there are times where the puck is off his stick to a teammate and into the back of the net before us regular folk understand what just happened. Teammates must be aware when playing alongside Nail as he has an uncanny ability to draw defenders to him and quickly dish the puck off to his linemates who are left wide open. Yakupov;s game changing ability makes his linemates that much better because teams need to place so much attention on him at all times he is on the ice.
Nail Yakupov is an extremely elusive hockey player to the fact where comparing him to Detroit Red Wing forward Pavel Datsyuk should gather no qualms. Why is Yakupov so elusive and evasive? First, Yakupov’s strong skating stride delivers quick acceleration and top end speed to swiftly separate himself from defenders. In addition, Nail has the ability to quickly change speed (especially when in high gear) that makes him almost impossible to lineup for the “big hit”. Add in the ability to spin, cut and deke on the fly and Yakupov’s arsenal is fully equipped with skills that gives defensemen nightmares around the league.
Over the course of the season, scouts have the rare pleasure of following a potential NHL Superstar and their job is made easier as it is not difficult to find loads of complimentary notes on Nail Yakupov. In fact, the scouting department may have more difficulty finding the flaws in Yakupov’s game. As an offensive skilled forward, the tendency to attack his defensive game will definitely be present but Nail Yakupov is showing that rare ability to correct his flaws quickly to put those critics to rest.
Sarnia Sting fans are observing first hand why Nail Yakupov is the consensus pick to go first overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Nail Yakupov has the acceleration, explosiveness and skating ability that emulates another former Russian number “10” in Pavel Bure. Yakupov has a Datsyuk-like ability to shake off opponents and avoid checks. Much like Forsberg before him, Yakupov has shown early on in his career that he has elite puck protection skills and is silky smooth in tight quarters. Look no further to former Sting star forward Steven Stamkos if you are comparing Nail Yakupov’s one-timing ability to a current NHLer. The biggest compliment of all could be when Nail Yakupov draws comparisons to Russian sniper Alexander Ovechkin. The similarities to “Ovie” lie in the passion and physicality that Yakupov exhibits when playing the game he makes look so simple. Ovechkin has three inches on Yakupov but Nail has displayed some bone crushing hits that even his country mate would surely admire.
The passion and drive that Yakupov displays on a nightly basis is his most admirable quality. On nights where Yakupov has to earn every point and play through frustration he still competes with every inch he has. When Yakupov’s teammates score, he celebrates like he did the scoring. When Yakupov earns an assist, he celebrates like it was his first ever assist. And, when Yakupov does the scoring, he celebrates like he will never score again. As hockey fans continue with their “Fail-for-Nail” campaigns in hopes of welcoming Yakupov to their NHL franchise, make no mistake that whichever NHL team drafts Yakupov they will be the ones celebrating for years to come.
Nail Yakupov (Sarnia Sting, Ontario Hockey League)
Position: Right Wing
Hometown: Nizhnekamsk, Russia
Weight: 170 Lbs.
2010-11 65GP-49G-52G-101P, -2, 71 PIM
2011-12 8GP-5G-15A-20P, +8, 6 PIM
Follow Brendan on Twitter for all things prospects @rossyyoungblood