Before Nail Yakupov even arrived in Edmonton, the questions about the top draft pick had already begun. Was he just the latest in a line of talented, enigmatic Russian snipers who, once in the NHL, would run afoul of the Don Cherry brand of play?
The young Russian star had called the Canadian junior team “dirty,” after all, no matter that he was speaking in Russian and later objected to the translation. On another occasion, the 19-year-old didn’t speak to the press, leaving some sportswriters questioning whether he’d be a “major prima donna.” Cherry himself fumed that Yakupov “took a Canadian kids [sic] spot” when he played junior hockey in Canada.
And yet, if he’s meant to play the role of diva on the rebuilding Oilers, no one seems to have told him to act the part.
Instead, it was a different Nail Yakupov who arrived in Canada Wednesday night, only to hit the ice Thursday morning. He donned No. 64, because it adds up to his previous number, 10, which was taken by captain Shawn Horcoff.
Yakupov’s jersey fluttered as he flew around the ice. He smiled, made small talk with new teammates and eagerly jumped in on drills, occasionally forgoing shooting chances to dish the puck across the crease to a teammate.
“That was amazing,” he beamed, in halting but passable English, to reporters afterward. “It’s pretty good. Great rink, great ice.”
He had come armed with a wide smile and quick wit.
Asked where he was living in Edmonton, he dryly replied “here” – the rink – and had joked about teammate Nikolai Khabibulin being the same age as his father (he is).
And while some KHL players mused about not returning to the NHL, Yakupov said he always wanted to “come right after to play [for the] Edmonton Oilers.”
Teammates, many of them seeing him skate for the first time, heaped praise on him. Asked about the criticism he’d faced, they dismissed it as irrelevant.
“He’s here, he’s an Oiler, that’s all there is to it,” said Ryan Smyth, who was impressed by the rookie. “Obviously a very talented, very skilled person and seems like a good person.”
Jordan Eberle, another of the Oilers’ young stars, also liked what he saw.
“He’s a skilled player, you can see,” Eberle said. “He shoots the puck hard, he’s got good hands, he’s a good skater – everything you’d expect of a kid who goes No. 1.”
Yakupov joins fellow first overall picks Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the young Oilers. Hall defended Yakupov against critics, saying he’s learning English and how to deal with speaking publicly as a star in the NHL. “I think he’ll understand that,” Hall said. “He didn’t mean to rub anybody the wrong way, that’s a given.”
Khabibulin – a 39-year-old goalie and fellow Russian – said the young sniper faces a steep learning curve, but has a head start from two years playing for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting.
“It’s definitely not easy, everything’s new, but I think he made that decision two years ago, when he came to North America, and I think that experience is definitely going to help him,” Khabibulin said. “From all the things I’ve heard about him, from people that know him pretty well, he’s a really nice kid. I don’t know what he has said [about “dirty” Canadian play]. I think it’s probably not who he is, put it that way.”
Yakupov is ready for a challenge. He said he feels comfortable with the pressure facing a first overall pick, but will benefit by playing for a team with depth at forward, meaning he won’t have to immediately carry the scoring attack on his own. He believes his experience in the KHL prepared him to make the leap with the Oilers.
“It was a good experience, and I think pretty good before the NHL,” Yakupov said.
He is moving his mother, father and sister to Edmonton, hoping they arrive before the season’s first game. The city – its snow, cold and size – reminds him of his hometown, he said. And he was recognized shortly after arriving.
“Yeah, some guys asked me, [saying] ‘good luck this season, I hope we will be in the playoffs.’ I said ‘thanks guys,’”
In the tale of two Yakupovs, it was the polite, gregarious, accommodating and jet-lag-immune 19-year-old, the one bringing his parents and sister with him to North America, who showed up at Rexall Place Thursday.
This is perhaps what inspired Oilers coach Ralph Krueger this week to pledge that fans were “going to see a different Nail Yakupov.”