EDMONTON - "Nail Yakupov is very happy Edmonton is picking No. 1. If it's going to happen, he'd be very happy to play for a team like that with all the talent they're putting together. I know he wants to play for the Oilers. I know his work ethic and I know his desire to be No. 1. He told me he'd be very happy to play with a team like that, with such a great future, for the next 10 years."
Nail Railovich Yakupov answered the phone Sunday night in Nizhnekamsk, Tatarstan, Russia, and said that's true. That's exactly what he told the Russian legend Igor Nikolayevich Larionov who also happens to be his agent.
When the bingo balls fell and the 29th-place Edmonton Oilers won the NHL Draft Lottery to pick first in the draft for the third consecutive year, he said he was ecstatic.
"I definitely want to go to Edmonton and play for the Oilers for sure," said the player Central Scouting and every other scouting service and credible draft projector has had No. 1 all year.
"I've played in Canada, in Sarnia, for the last two years. I love the people. I very much want to play for a Canadian team like Edmonton. I want to play for those guys!
"If they draft me, I will work very hard to make the team, give it everything I've got to work hard and play for the Oilers.
"I want to be No. 1.
"No. 1 is No. 1.
"I don't want to be second or third."
There. Just like Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, he said it. And that's what Steve Tambellini wanted to hear.
The Oilers general manager said it the day after he won the lottery when he returned to Edmonton for his post-season media session.
"Getting to know Yakupov is going to be big going forward.
"When I talked to Taylor Hall, he was very comfortable talking about being the No. 1 pick. If you are the first overall pick, playing in a Canadian market, you have to have special qualities. You have to have maturity and confidence. You have to have courage aside from all the talent they're blessed with.
"Same thing happened with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, only in a different way. His poise came through. He wasn't phased by anything. He's a humble, thoughtful, young man, confident beyond his years in a great way. He exudes leadership.
"That's what you have to find out, whether they're from Russia or Sweden or Canada. We have to know what Yakupov's family is like, what his teammates think of him, his coaches ...
"How does he react to this scrutiny?"
Certainly, Tambellini, president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe and head scout Stu MacGregor will want to look in his eyes when he says the words, but he was saying them to your correspondent Sunday from his home in Nizhnekamsk, a city of 250,000 about 800 kilometres and a 90-minute flight east of Moscow.
Actually, Yakupov has already met the Oilers.
"I met the guys when they played in Detroit," he said. "I met Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Smyth and other guys. John Vargo, one of our team doctors in Sarnia, who knows Horcoff, called him and asked if we could come to the game and go down and meet the guys after the game in the dressing room. It was great."
Yakupov scored 49 goals in producing a 101-point season with Sarnia in 2010-11 and followed up with 31 goals and 69 points in an abbreviated 42-game season with the Sting this year.
"I didn't have 100 points," he said of his second season in junior. "But I did not play 25 games this year. I can't say my season was bad. And I won a silver medal at the world junior in Canada. That's my best medal."
Yakupov said while he didn't play in the Edmonton pool of the world junior championship, he was completely overwhelmed by his experience in Calgary.
"It was a great atmosphere and a great game against Canada," said the right winger who, although he failed to score, registered nine points for the Russians, including three in the 6-5 semifinal win over Canada.
"We lost the final to Sweden. I think beating Canada was our gold-medal game. We gave everything against Canada.
"For me, beating Canada was so great. It was so huge to beat Canada in Canada. I don't have words.
"I was so nervous against Canada. It was a big game for me in my life. I wanted to kill those guys. I wanted to hit guys and ... for me, playing that game against Canada was everything."
The Nail (actually pronounced Nile but he's cool with it being pronounced Nail as it is spelled and as he expects he'll end up being called that throughout his hockey career) Yakupov we found in the mixed zone after that game certainly exemplified that.
Sunday on the phone from Russia he considered the 1-0 loss to Sweden in the game which followed.
"I look back at the final against Sweden and I was not nervous like I was against Canada.
"It would have been better to win gold, but I look back and it was a great tournament for me."
Yakupov suffered a knee-injury in that game and was out for five weeks.
When the Oilers sit down with Yakupov before the draft, or bring him to visit owner Daryl Katz like they did with Hall and Tyler Seguin or bring him here to have dinner at the home of Tambellini like they did with Nugent-Hopkins, one thing they'll definitely be asking him about is what happened in the playoffs, a first-round loss to Saginaw in which he didn't play well.
Late in the season, Mike Halmo of the Owen Sound Attack caught him with his head down and received a 10-game suspension for the hit which damaged Yakupov's shoulder and put him out for the final four games of the season. He returned for the first game of the playoffs.
"I'm OK. I'm not injured. The playoffs weren't about being injured.
"I'm not playing good in the playoffs," he admitted.
"That is true. But I was also playing nine minutes in a game, getting two, three, four shifts a period in the fourth game, the key game.
"I don't say my coach is bad. But I am on the bench."
Yakupov scored two goals and three assists in the six-game series and was a minus seven.
Talk to people in Sarnia and they tell you that Brandon Saad was a force for Saginaw in that series as his six goals and six assists would indicate. And Sting coach Jacques Beaulieu got heavily into line-matching against Saginaw coach Greg Gilbert who kept throwing that line out. That left Yakupov neutralized on the bench much of the time.
"We're not looking back. We're looking forward. He had a good year. Coming to camp ready to compete for his first year is what's important," said Larionov.
Asked if he thought his client would be ready to play in the NHL in his first year, Larionov offered a four-word answer.
"I have no doubt."
Everybody in the NHL is nervous about drafting Russians these days because of the KHL and situations like the one where Alexander Radulov skipped out on a contract in Nashville to play in the KHL.
That's another question Tambellini, Lowe, MacGregor and probably Katz will want to hear the answer to from Yakupov while looking in his eyes.
"There is a KHL team in my city," Yakupov said Sunday. "I like my city. I miss my city. My family, my friends and my girl are in this city. But for me, I know the best league in the world is the NHL. I just want to play there. And that's it. I want to play in the NHL and I want to play in the NHL all my career."
Larionov, who won three Stanley Cups with Detroit after centring the famed KLM line with Vlidimir Krytov and Sergei Makarov to win two Olympic gold medals and a bronze in the Olympics, four golds and a silver at the world hockey championships and the gold at the 1981 Canada Cup, playing for Russia in two others and a World Cup of Hockey as well, has huge credibility in the NHL.
And the member of the Hockey Hall of Fame says trust him on this.
"I know him and he's going to be fine. He speaks English now. Nail could have gone the KHL route and made some money, but he took a different path. He went to Sarnia two years ago. He likes the NHL style of game. If he didn't want to play in the NHL he wouldn't have come here to play junior for two years. He could have stayed in Russia to make money and take an easy path."
With Edmonton fans excited at the idea of having Eberle, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov in a modern day version of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson, after reading the above words, that's going to have to be one whale of a package of players and picks Tambellini is going to have to get from somebody not to take this kid.
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