When he was first drafted, the cheesy, pun-delivering side of me was thrilled that the Edmonton Oilers decided to take Nail Yakupov over Ryan Murray. First off, the Oilers already have a number of Ryans. Also Murray is, well, just Murray. The Oilers, and in fact no one else in the league, had a Nail. A name that lends itself to be overused in little analogies and sayings. Final Nail in the coffin, Hemmer and Nail, Tooth and Nail, a Thumbnail of his work, Oilers got Nail, Nail is rusty. I could go on and on. These don't come to me by Yakcident. You see even his last name can be branched out and overused. However, while I loved the name I'm now starting to fall for his game.
Unlike the other number one overall picks like Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who were born and raised in Canada, Yakupov moved here to better his career. The first sign of what this kid is made of and that NHL dreams happen as far away as Russia. He was an elite junior scorer, even surpassing Steven-Stamkos-set records with Sarnia. That's quite a sting-ing endorsement (okay I'll try and stop now). It led him to be at the head of his draft class in 2012. The lockout delayed a first-hand look but he was visible in the KHL, Sportsnet's Subway Super Series and at the World Juniors. The reviews on him were mixed. That he could be difficult to deal with and that he might be temperamental. That he was 'Russian'. I'm not sure what that means or when nationality became an issue in an NHL full of players from around the world. Let me tell you from spending the last few months around the kid he isn't what he was made out to possibly be.
The beginning was slow and steady in building a rapport with Nail. Coming off some harsh public criticism, he wasn't exactly sure who to trust. On his first day of skating prior to the start of training camp, a half circle of media -- upwards of 20 buzzards (including me) -- were circling looking to find some dirt and not just under his fingernails. There wasn't any to be found. He was gracious with his time. With a little bit of help from JJ Hebert, the Oilers Director of Communications and Media Relations, he manouevered his way through the language barrier. It was an early win in the game of public perception. I remember going up to him the next day and telling him that he handled it well. His response was "Really?". He wanted to do well and he wanted to be liked. He had achieved both of the above. The next time he came under media scrutiny was his rink-length, slide-down-the-ice-on-both-knees celebration after his last-second game-tying goal vs. LA. How dare a teenager show exuberance, excitement and some personality? I didn't understand the uproar. However, the next day he dealt with it in a firm fashion. Apologizing if he had offended anyone, yet standing his ground for doing something that came naturally at that particular time and place.
Dealing with the off-ice requirements is a fraction of what the first overall pick needs to do. You have to enjoy his work on Twitter @Nail10_1993. He loves his ya's and happy faces and he'll retweet quite easily on request. It's a small window into the kind of personality which he has and engaging describes it. That shouldn't be confused with the fact he isn't working on what God-given talent he has. He's on the ice a lot. Even after practice is done, Yakupov often isn't. When the Oilers have optional skates he options in instead of out. There's a real love for the game. It's what helped him already achieve lofty status and stature at the age of 19.
He may be young but he understands his success story will be written on the ice. A place that served him well as he embarked on his rookie voyage. Yakupov had five goals in his first eight games with Edmonton. The star scorer had emerged at the beginning of his Oilers life expectancy. However, a burst out of the gate was tough to sustain. He had one goal in his next 26 games. It wasn't every morning or night but the questions were arriving at a steady pace regarding his goal scoring. What happened? Was he frustrated? Where did his touch go? He stood in, answered them all and would always say it was more about the team than him. He wasn't worried about 64 but instead what 23 Oilers could achieve. He genuinely looked more concerned about the results around him than those regarding him. Underneath it all this kid showed a quiet confidence.
The evidence to prove that has now been on display since April 1st. It's no April Fools joke what he's done since then. Five goals and four assists in 8 games. He has 25 points and is near the top of the rookie scoring race. Outstanding numbers late in a season that included a playoff push. Even if the push slowed down, Yakupov didn't. Also what he has shown everyone, including the opposition, is that to quote Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers 'I won't back down'. At this time where the pushing, shoving and after-whistle confrontations are on the rise Yakupov hasn't wilted. He's been in some scraps with Calgary's Curtis Glencross and Phoenix's Keith Yandle. He isn't big(5'11"-184) but that doesn't mean he can't play big or at least bigger than his height and weight would suggest.
It has been a difficult time for the Edmonton Oilers. While it's easy to prey on negativity I'm positively certain Nail Yakupov has proven himself. The Edmonton Oilers and their fans know you can't build anything good, strong and that lasts without a Nail.
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