Back on June 22, 2012 when the Oilers drafted Nail Yakupov first overall, fans across Oil Country erupted in celebration.
And ‘celebration’ is the word.
With hundreds in attendance at Millennium Place in Sherwood Park, Yakupov made an immediate impact at the club’s mid-summer development camp in July. Not only did he impress with his world-class talent, Yakupov quickly endeared himself to the Oilers faithful with some creative and highly entertaining goal celebrations that brought a smile to everyone’s face.
“He’s entertaining,” laughed Head Coach Ralph Krueger. “His spirit and love for the game comes through in that, there’s no question.”
With the summer winding down and preparation for the 2012-13 season in full swing, anticipation continued to build. Thanks in large part to the success of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins up front, Yakupov’s addition left little to the imagination when it came to the Fab Four’s potential in an already lethal Top 6.
But, due to expiration of the League’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with its Players’ Association, Yakupov’s big league debut was put on hold.
The 19-year-old spent the 113-day-long work stoppage in his hometown of Nizhnekamsk, collecting 10 goals and 18 points in 22 games in the Kontinental Hockey League. Yakupov also represented Team Russia at the 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa, where he recorded three goals, eight points and a +2 rating in seven games en route to a Bronze Medal victory over Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Team Canada.
“It was a really good experience,” said the 5-foot-11, 185-pound right-winger. “We wanted to win Gold but we lost. We did win the Bronze and beat Canada, so it wasn’t too bad. I got to play against Nuge, too. He's a good hockey player and in the last game I played, I think I played every shift against him."
Just one day later, the back-to-work order was given and preparation for his NHL debut began. From the moment he walked in and glanced up at his surroundings in the same building where legends of the sport built a dynasty, Yakupov was in awe.
It was real. And it was just as special as he imagined it would be.
In his second game, on the second shot of his career and first at Rexall Place, Yakupov scored his first-career NHL goal when he launched a missile of a one-timer past San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi on January 22, 2013.
"I've been in this League for a while now and have had the chance to share in some special moments here in Edmonton,” said Yakupov’s linemate, Sam Gagner. “Getting to be a part of Nail’s first goal is right up there. The passion and excitement he plays with is unbelievable. It gets his teammates and the fans going. And it was obvious that night, because I don’t think I’d ever heard this building that loud before.”
Two days later against the Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings, Yakupov tallied the game-tying goal with 4.7 seconds left and celebrated in style. Fuelled by emotion after an unlikely circumstance in which an earlier Nugent-Hopkins goal was wiped out, the eccentric 18-year-old slid on his knees down the length of the ice and collapsed at the lip of Devan Dubnyk’s crease where ecstatic teammates arrived to share in the ecstasy.
"I didn't understand what was happening and was like, 'What am I doing?'” said Yakupov, whose mom, dad and sister have all moved to Edmonton and were equally as thrilled with the moment. “I didn’t hear anybody because the fans were going crazy. It was a great feeling. It was amazing.
“I've never played in a building that loud. I think we have the best fans in the world. I didn't hear anything.”
“He’s watched a lot of soccer games,” laughed Krueger. “That was the exuberance of a young player celebrating something very special happening in his life. He just loves being here. He's such a passionate kid and there was nothing dishonest about that.”
Less than a week later and before the month of January was up, Yakupov added goals in consecutive games against the Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes (the overtime-winner, no less), emerging as the Oilers’ top goal-getter through the first seven games of the season.
He had arrived, exactly as advertised.
“It all comes out of the quickness he plays with,” said Krueger. “He gets that puck cross-ice and to the net so quickly. Those are the moments of brilliance we get from him.”
“Nail has an incredible shot,” added Gagner. “It’s elite. It comes off his stick so quickly and with such velocity, it’s nearly impossible to stop when it’s put in his wheelhouse. That’s one of the reasons he’s so dangerous out there. He truly doesn’t need a lot of space to make a play or create a scoring chance.”
As is the case with most young players entering the League, there have been bumps along the way. But under the guidance of Krueger and the club’s experienced coaching staff, Yakupov’s overall game is well on its way to greater balance and reliability.
“He's been very responsible, wherever he's been put in the lineup,” said Krueger. “He’s very committed to our game and he’s incredibly eager to learn the nuances of the NHL team game.”
“There’s often a learning curve for young players coming in,” added Gagner. “I came into the League at the same age, so I went through it, too. The thing with Nail is that he’s so hungry to learn and become better. It’s a cliché, but he’s always the first guy on the ice and is usually the last one off. He’s so dedicated and is obviously a passionate guy, which is great to see. He’s already been a huge addition to our team and he’s only going to get better as he gets more experience in all the different situations he’s been put in.”
If Yakupov can rise to the ranks as one of the NHL’s premier snipers one day, there’s little doubt he’ll be celebrating many more goals and big team wins.
Just how big? Only time will tell.
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