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Yakovlev willing to do anything for Devils to live NHL dream

Russian defenseman takes ups, downs of rookie season in stride

by Mike. G. Morreale @MikeMorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

NEWARK, N.J. -- Egor Yakovlev is willing to do whatever it takes to become a regular NHL player. Anything.

"I'll play wherever the coach needs me to play ... even goalie," the New Jersey Devils defenseman said.

Though he hasn't gone between the pipes, the 27-year-old has dealt with unfamiliar circumstances. He's been assigned and recalled from Binghamton of the American Hockey League six times and when with the Devils, has played forward on four separate occasions.

"This is my dream, to play in the NHL," Yakovlev said. "So, I'll do whatever I need to do to make that happen."

He's had to do a lot off the ice as well, learning English in attempt to better communicate with teammates and coaches. It's an area that's improved as his first season in North America has progressed.

Yakovlev (6-foot, 192 pounds) spent six seasons playing defense in the Kontinental Hockey League before signing a one-year, entry-level contract with the Devils on May 21, 2018. He can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

"The speed and intensity in the NHL is different than the KHL because there's less room," Yakovlev said. "There are a lot of small things that are taken very seriously in the NHL. I really like everything about the Devils, but the one thing now is the language, but I'm trying. On the ice it doesn't bother me as much because hockey tongue is the same everywhere."

It didn't surprise Hynes to see the genuine excitement for Yakovlev by teammates after he scored his first NHL goal in his eighth game in a 5-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 3 at Prudential Center.

"He's a great pro, has a strong work ethic, and nothing fazes him," Hynes said. "He's in and out of the lineup but I think the guys really respect that. He's not a draft pick, wasn't in the League, but our scouts did a good job and he's come in and played well."

Though a rookie in the NHL, Yakovlev has plenty of international hockey experience. He has one assist and a plus-2 rating in helping the Olympic Athletes from Russia win the gold medal at the 2018 PyeongChang Games. He had 21 points (six goals, 15 assists) in 56 regular-season games for SKA St. Peterburg in 2016-17, and three assists in 15 playoffs games, helping them win the Gagarin Cup. He represented Russia at three IIHF World Championship events, winning a gold medal in 2014 and a silver medal in 2015.

He has six points (two goals, four assists) and averages 15:10 in ice time in 22 games with New Jersey and had 16 assists in 19 games for Binghamton of the American Hockey League this season. The Devils (25-36-9), who are 22 points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, play at the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN1).

Hynes said the Devils were concerned Yakovlev would return to Russia when they told him he would start this season in Binghamton, but he instead met the challenge head on.

Video: NYR@NJD: Johansson connects with Yakovlev for tally

"We did have discussions with him and spoke with his agent and there were no guarantees he would go (to Binghamton) but he said he understood the situation, respected it and wanted to work at it," Hynes said. "He believed he could play in the NHL and it's great to see him fulfill his dream."

Sergei Brylin, an assistant for Binghamton who played two seasons in Russia's elite league before joining the Devils and winning the Stanley Cup in 1994-95, knows what Yakovlev is experiencing.

"The language barrier is not an easy thing to deal with, especially when you need to communicate during the game with coaches and teammates," Brylin said, "but he's made a great effort. I certainly don't think he's a shy guy who sits in the corner of the locker room."

Perhaps one reason dealing with obstacles haven't gotten the best of Yakovlev is the fact he's already overcome serious emotional moments in life. Yakovlev was the first player signed by Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL a month after the entire team and coaching staff was killed in a plane crash near the Russian city of Yaroslavl on Sept. 7, 2011.

Yakovlev said he will never forget the ceremony before Lokomotiv's season-opening game, a 5-1 win against Neftyanik on Dec. 21, 2011.

"It was broadcast on all channels for many people and it was an important moment," Yakovlev said. "We watched a video tribute on the stadium scoreboard and many guys had tears in their eyes. That first game wasn't easy because we were in Yaroslavl. We loved that team and had a big task to try and revive the team."

Devils forward Pavel Zacha said Yakovlev, despite all he's been through, never seems to get down.

"When you go through that you realize there's bigger and harder things in life, but he's happy to be in our locker room," Zacha said. "He's always positive and even though he's still learning the language, he still brings the energy to the locker room."

Hynes said he appreciates Yakovlev's determined effort to improve and earn his trust.

"If you take systems out of it and look at him as a player, he can play in confrontation, and is responsible," Hynes said. "Some of the breakdowns are, whether it's communication or system detail, coming out of the corner and recognizing who should pick up a player out of a battle.

"But he doesn't have a ton of NHL experience and this is new to him. It's easier in meetings and video sessions, but harder as a player to go out and do it regularly, but we like the progress he's made."

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