Top NHL Draft prospect Yakupov a star in the making

Mitch Ward,

8/20/2011 9:48:42 AM

You don't have to watch him for very long to see why Nail Yakupov is considered the favourite to be taken with the first overall selection in the 2012 NHL Entry draft.

The Russian speedster was one of 36 top 2012 prospects on the ice for the NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp on Wednesday and Thursday in Etobicoke, Ont.

The prospects tested out a variety of possible rule changes in front of a who's who of NHL executives, scouts and coaches while showcasing their talents against top talent.

“You could tell he's a dynamic player,” said Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, who coached Yakupov on the black team at camp.

In three up-tempo scrimmages at the camp you couldn't help but notice the dizzying array of skills Yakupov brings to the table.

“I think when you look at Nail Yakupov you start to take a step back and say okay what can't he do in the game?” said TSN hockey analyst Craig Button. “I think that's what always differentiates those elite, top players.”

Standing a shade less than 5'11, Yakupov isn't the biggest guy around but his speed, vision, tremendous puck skills and accurate shot more than make up for his lack of size. In fact, had it not been for an early October birthday that saw him miss the 2011 Entry Draft cutoff by less than a month, Yakupov may very well have been a top-3 pick already.

“He's got that complete package,” said Button.

It wasn't just the coaches and scouts who were impressed with Yakupov at camp either. Mathew Dumba, one of the top defensive prospects at camp, was happy he was on Yakupov's team rather than matching up against him.

“Just watching him looked like he was pretty tough on defenders,” said Dumba. “It's definitely fun to play with him; he's so effective when he gets the puck.”

Malcolm Subban wasn't so lucky, having to play in net against Yakupov.

“He has a lot of skill, he's really explosive and has a good shot,” said Subban. “You've gotta be aware of those guys when they're on the ice at all times.”

Subban was beaten once by Yakupov on a perfect one-timer during the second scrimmage on Wednesday, but got his revenge by making an incredible recovery to stop him in the shootout.

Yakupov took the OHL by storm last season, scoring 49 goals and 101 points in 65 games for the Sarnia Sting en route to capturing both OHL and CHL Rookie of the Year honours.

His point and goals totals broke the Sting's rookie scoring record previously held by none other than Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos.

Yakupov was also a force for the Russian team at the IIHF World Under-18 Championships this past April. He scored six goals and 13 points in seven games and had a hat-trick against Canada to help Russia win the bronze medal.

For all the skill, the records and the hype, Yakupov remains very humble though, putting his team's goals ahead of his own.

“I think we have pretty good team, so I want to be first in the OHL,” said Yakupov. “My points, scores and assists come second.”

An ethnic Tatar hailing from Nizhnekamsk, a city about 500 miles east of Moscow in Russia, Yakupov elected to come to Canada to play junior hockey, despite speaking virtually no English, because of the style of the Canadian game.

“I like the hockey in Canada it's pretty tough, and I want to play in the NHL,” said Yakupov. “It's more physical so it's interesting.”

Yakupov's transition to Canada last season was eased somewhat by the fact that he lived with the Russian-speaking family of Sting teammate, good friend, and fellow top-rated prospect, Alex Galchenyuk who was also on hand at camp.

The two formed a dynamic duo for the Sting, as Galchenyuk was second to Yakupov among first-year players with 83 points.

They were on opposite teams at camp though, which took some adjusting.

“We played 68 games together, it was pretty tough,” said Galechnyuk. “I got used to playing with him and I mean you pass the puck and it's not Nail, it's pretty different.”

Despite playing for opposite sides, the two teamed up during the skills competition shootout. Yakupov passed the puck to Galechnyuk, who flipped the puck into the air as Yakupov flipped his stick around and attempted a baseball swing.

Unfortunately Yakupov whiffed on the pitch.

“We tried, to do something special, it almost worked,” said Galechyuk. “I still think it was pretty nice.”

Galchenyuk was also more than happy to help out his friend during interviews when needed. When a reporter asked Yakupov what goals he had for the upcoming season Galchenyuk was quick to jump in.

“Pass the puck to me more,” he said to laughs.

The two-young stars will report to Sting training camp on Monday August 29 in preparation for the upcoming OHL season. And with a full season under their belts, don't be surprised if the two put up some lofty numbers in Sarnia this year and hear their names called early in the draft.