Over the course of Russian hockey history, the country's vast landscape has given rise to a variety of NHL and international hockey stars. One region that has not been the birthplace of a future NHL star is the Republic of Tatarstan. Seventeen-year-old Sarnia Sting right wing Nail Yakupov aims to change this.
An early candidate for top pick of the 2012 Entry Draft, Yakupov is an ethnic Tatar who hails from the city of Nizhnekamsk, which is located about 500 miles east of Moscow.
Selected second in the 2010 CHL import draft, he dazzled NHL scouts this past season with a spectacular 101 points (49 goals, 52 assists), the fourth-highest total in the league and most by a first-year player since Patrick Kane had 145 points in 2006-07. He won the OHL's Rookie of the Year award, and his scoring output shattered Steven Stamkos' team record for a rookie (92 points in 2006-07).
Yakupov possesses blazing speed and soft hands that enable him to overcome a relative lack of size (6-foot, 190 pounds). In addition to his stellar play in the OHL, he starred for Russia at the 2011 World Under-18 Championship. He had 6 goals and 13 points in seven games, including a hat trick in Russia's 6-4 bronze medal-game victory against Canada.
"He's got the ability to be a game-breaking player," NHL Central Scouting's Al Jensen told NHL.com. "He has the kind of skills and speed that very few players have and you can't teach."
Although Sarnia had high hopes for Yakupov after selecting him in the Import Draft, the swiftness of his transition to the North American game enabled him to surpass even the most optimistic forecasts for his first season abroad. He won OHL Rookie of the Month honors in November, the first of three months he claimed the prize during the season.
"We were hopeful that he'd be a solid contributor, but he definitely exceeded our expectations," said Sarnia associate coach Trevor Letowksi. "It's not just his skill level. Nail plays with a lot of enthusiasm and passion for the game. He was one of the best players in the league and it was only his first year."
Former Sting coach Dave MacQueen was even more effusive in his praise, invoking the name of the team's most successful recent graduate: "Yakupov is every bit as exciting as Steven Stamkos was at the same age," he told The Hockey News.
Another luminary to whom Yakupov's potential has drawn frequent comparisons is former NHL superstar Pavel Bure. Like the Russian Rocket, Yakupov quickly has gained the reputation of being able to beat even the speediest of defenders in foot races.
Yakupov's acclimation to North American life on and off the ice has been eased considerably by having a strong support system around him. Sarnia teammate Alex Galchenyuk, another high-end candidate for the 2012 draft, roomed with him during the season. Although the affable Yakupov's English skills have improved rapidly and he does interviews in English, he still sometimes needs translation assistance from Galchenyuk. The latter moved with his family to Chicago a year prior to joining the Sting.
In addition, both Yakupov and Galchenyuk have benefited from having Hockey Hall of Famer Igor Larionov as their agent. Larionov keeps in regular contact with both of them, giving them advice not only about hockey matters but also about navigating daily life in a culture far different from the ones they grew up with at home.
Yakupov is extremely proud of his ethnic Tatar heritage. There are approximately 5.5 million Tatars living within modern Russia. The Republic of Tatarstan features two teams in the Kontinental Hockey League, although there have been few natives of the region who have enjoyed widespread international hockey fame.
Prior to Yakupov's emergence, the best-known hockey players hailing from the region have been former Russian national team center and one-time Nashville Predators draftee Denis Arkhipov and former Philadelphia Flyers defense prospect Artem Anisimov (not to be confused with the current New York Rangers forward with the same name).
Located in the capital city of Tatarstan, the well-known Ak Bars Kazan team has been a six-time champion (twice in the KHL, four times in the former Russian Super League) since the fall of the Soviet Union. In Yakupov's native city of Nizhnekamsk, there is a KHL team called Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk. Before coming to North America, Yakupov played the 2009-10 season for Reaktor Nizhnekamsk, the local KHL club's junior affiliate team in the MHL.
An Oct. 6 birthday meant Yakupov missed the cutoff date for the 2011 draft by less than a month. If he had been eligible, he likely still would have been a first-round pick. Although it may be tough for him to surpass his first-season performance, if Yakupov can elevate his game even higher in 2011-12, he will be a shoo-in to be a lottery pick in the 2012 draft, and may even be the top pick.