There is a tendency among the cynics in the press box to want to toss a wrench into the gears of the hype machine when writing about “The Next One” in any given sport.
In this case the subject is 18-year-old Nail Yakupov, the left-handed Russian right winger tearing apart the Ontario Hockey League for the Sarnia Sting. The second overall pick in the 2010 Canadian Hockey League import draft, he arrived in this southwestern Ontario border town with a bang last season, scoring 49 goals and 101 points to smash the franchise rookie scoring record previously held by Steven Stamkos.
Yakupov is the darling of the NHL 2012 draft class, the kind of elite talent scouts say doesn’t come along all that often and a player with the sort of raw potential that has fans of the NHL’s more moribund squads advocating “Fail For Nail” campaigns.
“Just talking to guys at rinks, they all say they don’t need to watch him any more, he’s the No. 1,” said a scout from a Canadian-based franchise who first saw Yakupov play in 2009 as an underage member of Team Russia at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament.
“He stood out back then against guys who were two years older than him,” the scout said. “I thought we’d pick over the kid so much that by the time he was draft eligible he’d be just another ordinary player. It hasn’t happened because he’s one of those kids who every night does something unexpected and that makes him a special player.”
Leafing through a pile of scribbled notes taken while watching Yakupov play twice in a week, it’s hard to find negatives among the endless lines of superlatives and exclamation points. Sometimes when he comes over the boards it feels as if the entire rink tilts to the right and the puck just finds him, like it does all the special ones.
He has explosive speed and a lightning-quick release; he sees the ice well and finds his teammates with accurate passes; at 5 foot 10 and 170 pounds he’s not physically imposing, but doesn’t shy away from contact. He has an intense, focused glare that Mark Messier would approve of. Under the tutelage of first-year Sting head coach Jacques Beaulieu he’s rounding out his defensive game, backchecking just as hard as he goes toward the offensive zone.
“If you want to play in the NHL you need to have good offence and good defence,” Yakupov said. “I need to be better in every part of my game. There is still a lot to work on.”
Yakupov’s agent, Russian hockey legend Igor Larionov, said the improving two-way game is all part of his client’s rapid development.
“It’s very rare to see a Russian player at this age have the strength and understanding to play the game both ways,” Larionov said. “He can score goals, he can set up goals, but he also wants to backcheck. It tells me he respects the game of hockey, respects his teammates and the fans. He plays at 100 per cent every night.”
Some wondered how Yakupov would fare without his regular centreman, close friend and fellow top prospect Alex Galchenyuk, who has been sidelined all season by knee surgery. Galchenyuk and his family played a vital role in easing Yakupov’s transition to both a new league and country, and their on-ice chemistry is undeniable.
“It has been very tough because we worked so well last year,” Yakupov said. “He knows what I’m going to do out there and I know what he’s going to do. It’s not easy without him.”
The statistics say otherwise. Despite teams focusing their defensive game plans on him, Yakupov has 18 goals and 28 assists in 23 games this season to put him ahead of last year’s pace.
His play has meant increased media scrutiny, but Yakupov seems happy enough to tell yet another reporter about growing up in Nizhnekamsk, a city in the Russian republic of Tatarstan. His father had him on skates at 3 and he watched his hockey hero, Pavel Bure, on television become a scoring star in a league on the other side of the world.
Yakupov decided that if he wanted to achieve the same heights, he had to leave home and test himself in the intense, physical brand of Canadian junior hockey.
“It was my dream to come to Canada and play against the best,” he said. “I’m happy to be in the OHL, to be playing in Sarnia.”
The only time Yakupov bristles is when he is asked about his standing atop most draft rankings and the chance to be the first Russian-born player since Alex Ovechkin in 2004 to be taken with the first pick. Even if you’ve bought the hype, he’s not about to.
“Same questions all the time,” Yakupov said with a shrug. “I feel no pressure. I worry about my team. If you work hard on the ice and in the gym and listen to your coach, the points will come and the high draft place will come.”