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Nail Yakupov, a winger from Russia who was chosen first overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the NHL hockey draft, pulls on an Oilers jersey on Friday, June 22, 2012, in Pittsburgh. (Keith Srakocic/AP)
Nail Yakupov, a winger from Russia who was chosen first overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the NHL hockey draft, pulls on an Oilers jersey on Friday, June 22, 2012, in Pittsburgh. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Player development matters most in Yakupov dispute Add to ...

The Nail Yakupov transfer issue is a classic case of the letter of the law trumping common sense.

The story on Yakupov, the No. 1 player chosen in the 2012 NHL entry draft, is essentially this: On Wednesday, the Kontinental Hockey League suspended Yakupov after he failed to get an official transfer card from the International Ice Hockey Federation that would permit him to play in Russia. At the root of the dispute is that Yakupov signed his NHL entry-level contract with the Edmonton Oilers. By rule, as an 18-year-old, it requires him to return to his junior team, the OHL’s Sarnia Sting, if he doesn’t play in the NHL.

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But with NHL players locked out and no end in sight to the labour dispute, Yakupov expressed an interest in playing for his hometown team, Niznhekamsk Neftekhimik, and actually was in the lineup for two games before he was suspended, pending further developments.

It’s understandable, first off, why the IIHF is interested in following proper procedures here.

Until recently, the NHL and KHL were at war over player transfers, a dispute which came to a head in 2008 when Alexander Radulov left the Nashville Predators, even though he was under contract to the NHL team, to play for Ufa in the KHL. Since then, the two leagues have gradually worked out an uneasy peace, in which they honour each other’s contracts. Radulov in fact returned to the NHL for a handful of games in the spring, with a view to burning off the final year of his NHL entry-level contract and becoming a restricted free agent (RFA). Radulov subsequently returned to the KHL after his brief NHL cameo was something of a disaster.

So the notion enforcing the rules here is understandable and prudent.

However, Yakupov is in a unique position. He left Russia early to acclimate himself to the North American style of play and learn the English language because he was primarily interested in playing in the NHL. It was that desire that helped convince the Oilers to draft him first overall in the 2012 entry draft. Had Yakupov harboured any great desire to play in the KHL on a long-term basis, Edmonton likely would have gone in a different direction.

Ultimately, what should matter most here, for all parties, is player development. Yakupov already has two junior seasons under his belt. Would a third serve any purpose? Or would his development be enhanced by playing against men on the big ice in Russia, where the KHL has attracted pretty much every locked-out star NHL player? You’d have to think the latter would be the case. KHL teams practice more than they play (just a 56-game schedule) and the quality of the league has never been higher, given the presence of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and others.

If the shoe had been on the other foot and Yakupov needed to adjust to the smaller ice, or to learn the language, or to otherwise adjust to life in North America, then Sarnia would - and should - be his destination of choice. But he’s done all those things already. He wants to play in Russia, the Russian team wants him, and if you’re Edmonton, you’d have to think that for Yakupov, playing back home would be a good thing in the grand scheme of things for a year, a half year, or however long it takes the lockout to end.

As translated by Yahoo sports’ Dmitry Chesnokov, Yakupov tweeted in Russian Wednesday that he expects that this is strictly a paperwork issue and that "everything will be worked out in the near future & I will once again continue to play for my hometown club Neftekhimik."

For his sake, and for everyone else involved in this mini tempest in a teapot, you have to hope that’s how it plays out.

UPDATE

Hockey Canada issued a statement with regard to the Yakupov transfer issue, from Tokyo, where president Bob Nicholson was attending the IIHF General Congress.

According to Nicholson, Hockey Canada is prepared to sign Yakupov's transfer papers, provided they get the go-ahead from the Sarnia Sting.

Officially, Nicholson says: “Hockey Canada cannot sign the international transfer card for Nail Yakupov until the Sarnia Sting club releases this player from his contract.  If Sarnia advises Hockey Canada that it has released the player, Hockey Canada will sign his transfer card.”

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