It’s not really fair to compare an 18-year-old kid in junior to a fully formed NHL player, but we tend to do it anyway to prospects, if for no other reason than it gives us a marker to imagine what they might one day become.
On my recent trip to watch Sarnia Sting winger Nail Yakupov, the topic came up often. An explosive Russian winger, the easy comparison would be with Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin.
Ask Yakupov about his game and he’ll tell you he’s borrowed heavily from his idol, Pavel (The Russian Rocket) Bure.
A scout for a Canadian-based NHL franchise told me that comparison falls short.
“He has a much more complete game than Bure,” the scout said. “He back-checks just as hard as he goes up ice with the puck and plays hard in his own end. He doesn’t mind the physical part of the game. Even though he’s not really big, he plays big.”
Sting head coach Jacques Beaulieu said Yakupov reminds him of a dominating winger he coached while serving as assistant for the London Knights.
“I say it every day: He reminds me of Rick Nash,” Beaulieu said. “He’s got dynamic speed like Rick and he shoots better than Rick did at this age. They’re both as physical as they have to be for skilled players. Both guys have the ability to bring the fans out of their seats.”
My two cents: I see the same package of tools possessed by Red Wings centre Pavel Datsyuk, who I would argue is the best all-round forward in the NHL. Yakupov has all the tricks in the offensive zone, but is willing to work just as hard in his own end. He doesn’t just want the puck on his stick, he needs it.
The last word goes to Russian legend Igor Larionov, Yakupov’s agent and one of the most thoughtful and eloquent men in hockey.
“There are so many elements to his game that remind you of different players,” Larionov said. “That’s what makes him unique. It’s best just to say he’s Nail Yakupov.”
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