EDMONTON -- Nail Yakupov's love of hockey runs deep.
Growing up in Russia, the Edmonton Oilers forward developed a passion for the sport and was encouraged to express it.
He still does, which makes him a popular figure in the organization.
"It comes from my home, my town and my family," Yakupov said. "My dad, my uncle and my mom, they told me you have to have fun playing hockey. You're going to get older, but you can't think about hockey as just your job. Yes, it's your job and they pay you, but you have to have fun doing it.
"You have to smile every day because you look at those guys that play 20 years in the NHL, they're always smiling because they're having fun. You can't focus on this like it's just a job."
Nail Yakupov learned from an early age that it was OK to have fun playing hockey. That has carried over to his NHL career, and heading into his second season, he's still smiling and having a good time. (Photo: Getty Images)
Yakupov, 19, had plenty of fun in his first season with the Oilers. The first pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, Yakupov had 17 goals and 14 assists in 48 games to win the rookie scoring title with 31 points. He celebrated every goal as if it were his first.
"The thing I really love about Yakupov is his passion for the game," Oilers coach Dallas Eakins said. "I think he's one of those guys that when he's away from the rink, if there were a bunch of kids playing in the street he might go and play with them. You love to see that. The kid is so fun to watch play. When he gets the puck, it's like everybody leans forward in their seat wondering what he's going to do."
Heading into his second season, Yakupov has high expectations for himself and the Oilers.
He's part of a young core of talented players looking to get the team back in the playoff picture for the first time in seven years since the Oilers reached the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.
"I don't like it when someone calls us a young team," Yakupov said. "We're not really that young. [Ryan] Nugent-Hopkins is in his third year, [Taylor] Hall and [Jordan] Eberle are in their fourth year. They've played a lot of games and they've seen each player in the NHL. It's the same for everyone. Every team wants to win the Stanley Cup, that's what each team works so hard for, and we're not any different."
Yakupov said he feels more comfortable in the League arriving after a stint in the KHL during the lockout.
While the pressure was on then as well, Yakupov eventually settled into a routine and had a strong run at the end of the season.
"When you first arrive, you think you have to do something spectacular, but in reality all you have to do is live your dream and just play hockey and have fun," he said. "You just have to do your job and work as hard as you can. If you work hard and do your thing, then good things are going to happen. You just can't be worried about the things you can't control.
"We have a pretty good team and everybody on the team helped me a lot. It was the same situation with Nugent-Hopkins and Hall the first year they were here. They were able to talk to somebody to help them out. You just have to think about your own things and try to help the team any way you can."
Right Wing - EDM
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 31
SOG: 81 | +/-: -4
A stronger grasp of the language has helped Yakupov interact better with his teammates this season. He's become more vocal in the locker room and is taking on a bigger leadership role.
"[Yakupov] is a pretty outgoing guy to begin, but it's good,” Eberle said. "The biggest thing is that you want him to come in here and feel like it's a safe environment. That's what the rink is for, and you will play your best when you're most comfortable, so it's good that he feels that way.
"He loves the game. We have a lot of young players that love the game and I think anytime you can get that positively in the locker room, it's great. And we push each other and that's great."
Yakupov is counting on another strong season. So far he's been one of the Oilers' best players throughout the preseason, and while aware of the perils of a possible sophomore slump, he welcomes the challenge.
"The second year is always tougher, everybody says that," Yakupov said. "But there are always challenges. There were challenges last year, there are going to be challenges this year, and next year there are going to be challenges as well. What we have to do is just work through it. That's what's going to get you through those tough times. I think everyone in this locker room works hard. We have a great chance and a great opportunity this season to play great hockey."