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Nail Yakupov to play against Oilers with Blues

Forward back in Edmonton two weeks after being traded

by Derek Van Diest / Correspondent

EDMONTON -- St. Louis Blues forward Nail Yakupov had little time to get acquainted with his teammates before returning to play against his former team, the Edmonton Oilers.

The No. 1 selection in the 2012 NHL Draft by Edmonton will face the Oilers for the first time, at Rogers Place on Thursday (9 p.m. ET; SNOL, FS-MW, NHL.TV), less than two weeks after being traded to St. Louis.

"I feel great, I'm really excited to be back, because I was here for a long time and I'm looking forward to playing a game against my old team in this building," Yakupov said after Blues practice Wednesday. "I was surprised a little bit [with the trade] because I didn't expect to come to this team, but it turned out really well for me, because I enjoyed coming to this team and this organization.

"I haven't been there for a long time, but I already feel comfortable and the guys have been really, really good to me. I haven't felt any pressure or had any problems and I've already had some people out of hockey help me out for living and things like that, so I feel really good."

Video: MIN@STL: Yakupov notches first goal with Blues

The Oilers traded Yakupov to the Blues on Oct. 7 for forward prospect Zach Pochiro and a conditional third-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, which becomes a second-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft if Yakupov scores at least 15 goals this season.

"I know this team (the Blues), and we've played against this team, and it was always hard to play against St. Louis," Yakupov said. "Some guys have played for this club for a long time and they pretty much have the same guys and are always doing well and it's really good to be part of it. I'm trying to enjoy hockey right now."

Yakupov, 23, played five seasons with the Oilers. He had eight goals and 15 assists in 60 games last season.

As the Oilers' third successive No. 1 pick (Taylor Hall, 2010; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 2011), Yakupov came under scrutiny in Edmonton. He scored 17 goals and had 14 assists in 48 games during his rookie season of 2012-13 playing for coach Ralph Krueger.

The following season under coach Dallas Eakins, Yakupov had 11 goals and 13 assists in 63 games with a plus/minus of minus-33. The following season, he had 14 goals and 33 points in 81 games and was minus-35.

On Wednesday, Yakupov was not interested in dredging up the past, instead wanting to focus on his future.

"I'm here [with the Blues] now and I don't want to talk about that," he said. "I'm here now and I'm just happy to be part of this group."

Video: MIN@STL: Paajarvi finishes rush with wicked wrister

Yakupov has a goal and an assist in his first four games with St. Louis. He had two points in his second game, helping the Blues to a 3-2 win against the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 13.

"He's been good, he's fit in, he's finding his way," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He's trying to become a good teammate. The nice part with [Nail] is that there's no expectations, just come in and work your tail off, and hopefully, contribute when you can, so there is no baggage, and he's done exactly that."

Yakupov struggled to find a regular role in the Edmonton lineup with a number of young, talented offensive players on the roster. He had some success playing with center Connor McDavid at the start of last season but finished on the third line.

Yakupov practiced Wednesday on the Blues' second line with center Paul Stastny and left wing Robby Fabbri.

"He's been getting better and better every game," Hitchcock said. "Yesterday (a 2-1 overtime loss at the Vancouver Canucks) was his best game for us. We moved him up based on his play. He's got an element that we need. He's got some speed, he's got some ability to make plays off the rush, which is helpful to us."

Hitchcock said the Blues had a spot available for Yakupov when forward Vladimir Sobotka did not return from the Kontinental Hockey League.

"He's a very unique player from what we have," Hitchcock said of Yakupov. "He's different than what we have in our lineup, so there is an energy level when he's on the ice that is good for us. We're trying to get him to be good 5-on-5, then hopefully, in a week or two or three weeks, we can bleed him into some of the power-play stuff and things like that. But right now our focus is getting him to be a good 5-on-5 player."

Hitchcock said he discussed Yakupov with Oilers coach Todd McLellan prior to the trade.

"We're trying to get him to play to his strengths and let the other stuff take care of itself," Hitchcock said. "When you're not confident with the puck, you get very cautious, and we're trying to get him to express himself on the ice as much as possible and we'll teach him the rest. We are trying to get that confidence with the puck. When you don't have success and you don't have success that you yourself anticipate, it's hard to keep going. I think that's where he got to."

Hitchcock said it may take time to see where Yakupov fits best in the Blues lineup.

"What is he; is he a top-three or a top-nine [forward]? That's going to take a whole year to figure that one out," Hitchcock said. "Is he a top-nine forward in the League? Yes, for sure. Can he be a top-three (first line)? I don't know that yet, and that's going to take a long time."

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