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Edmonton Oilers like what they see in Nail Yakupov's game

Nail Yakupov has shown attitude on the ice -- and apparent physical growth -- that has Oilers brass...

Nail Yakupov has shown attitude on the ice -- and apparent physical growth -- that has Oilers brass pleased with his development as a pro hockey player so far. (QMI Agency)

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:58 AM ET

There was no lack of Edmonton Oilers’ scouts in the Sleeman Centre here Thursday evening.

Morley Gare. Brad Davis. Bob Brown. Jim Crosson. James McGregor. Kent Hawley. Michael Abbamont.

Presumably they were told not to all be watching Nail Yakupov in Game 3 of the Subway Super Series, which will take last year’s No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft to his former OHL junior home in Sarnia Monday and then to face a flock of Edmonton Oil Kings as the Russians play the OHL All-Stars in Vancouver and Victoria later next week.

In truth, there really haven’t been that many live in-person viewings of the player who has scored 10 goals and played point-per-game-plus hockey with 14 points in 13 games in the KHL with hometown Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk so far this season.

There’s been a steady parade of Oilers organizational people to Oklahoma City to watch Justin Schultz lead the AHL with six goals and nine assists for 15 points in his first 10 games as a pro.

But it’s not like the Oilers weren’t paying attention to Yakupov before their busload of scouts arrived here last evening.

Nobody has actually caught a home game in Neftekhimik.

But they’ve been watching. And they haven’t been disappointed.

“What impresses me most is we’re seeing a young player with high expectations illustrating that he has those expectations of himself and has been playing like he has something to prove,” said general manager Steve Tambellini.

“He’s shown he’s not intimidated playing against men and that he’s not intimidated by having been chosen to wear the ‘C’ by the Russians for this series in Canada.

“It’s exciting to see him take the challenge. That’s what I like most. I don’t see any fear. And I don’t mean the physical side of fear. I don’t see any fear of his own game.

“He wants to be the guy. He’s excited to be given the ‘C.’ He’s there to lead. I love that part of it.

“And he looks a heck of a lot stronger physically than maybe we projected for him this year, going against men.

“Physically he looks a lot wider. And I mean that in a good way.”

Tambellini, who along with head scout Stu MacGregor have been in Ann Arbour, Mich., watching the Four Nations U-18 event and are now headed to Sweden for the Four Nations U-20, says new head coach Ralph Krueger has been the Oilers’ main Yakupov monitor man.

“Ralph has spent some time with him over there,” he said of bouncing around Europe out of his base in Switzerland.

“To have been able to watch Nail has been nothing but a pleasure,” said Krueger, returning a call from somewhere in Europe Thursday.

“He’s a shooting machine!

“To have double digit goals in that Russian league already is nothing short of outstanding.

“He’s second in the league in shots on goal — in the whole league — it’s really phenomenal,” said the longtime Swiss national coach of the KHL.

“He exudes so much confidence. And those Russian teams play so defensive. They play such a structured defensive game. And to top it all off, Nail is not on such a good team.”

Krueger admits that in following Schultz and Yakupov he feels like the Oilers had two No. 1 overall picks in the draft last year to go with one No. 1 pick — Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — in each of their previous pairs of 30th place overall seasons.

“It’s very exciting what these two kids, with this type of talent, are doing playing against men for the first times in their career.”

Krueger said he’s taking an in-contact but not an in-their-faces strategy with both, wanting them to be coached by their coaches during the NHL lockout.

“With Nail, since I last had dinner with him, it’s been mostly by e-mail, texting and one phone call.

“He’s always been very interesting to exchange thoughts with in our contact. I can feel the Oilers blood beginning to boil in him.”

While Yakupov hasn’t been shy of exhibiting his flamboyant personality, Kreuger says he’s kept it out of their exchanges.

“They have been nothing but respectful,” he said.

When he sees it, that flamboyance, he doesn’t mind it at all, says Krueger.

“We want these kids to be confident. I like what I feel from them. Justin has a different kind of confidence. But with both, they believe in their ability and are backing it up.”

Krueger admits that in following Schultz and Yakupov he can’t help but be thinking of the Oilers power play. He took over coaching the Oilers power play last year as an associate coach under Tom Renney last year and moved it from near-worst to near-first in the league, the Oilers ending up third at 20.6% after being 27th at 14.5% the year before.

You’d figure he’d have Schultz and Nugent-Hopkins pencilled in on the points with Jordan Eberle, Hall and Yakupov up front. But Krueger says he’s not thinking one power play but two.

“I think a good team in the NHL needs two groups firing.

“I think Justin on the right side and Nugent-Hopkins on the left is a pretty good foundation for the power play on the back. I’m thinking Nail more as the scorer with Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner. Nail is definitely a shooter. And I see Eberle as kind of like the clean-up man in baseball on the other unit.”

Follow me on Twitter.com/sunterryjones

terry.jones@sunmedia.ca


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