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Top prospect Yakupov excels no matter the situation

by Mike G. Morreale
The closer the calendar gets to the 2012 NHL Draft, the more Sarnia Sting forward Nail Yakupov seems to relish the moment.

Rarely a week goes by when NHL Central Scouting's top-rated North American skater doesn't bring fans to their feet with a highlight-reel goal.

Despite missing 22 games this season as a result of injury or participation in the 2012 World Junior Championship, Yakupov became the first Sting player to hit the 30-goal mark last Sunday. He did so in dramatic fashion, scoring his second of the game with 3.7 seconds left after taking a breakaway pass at center ice, splitting two opposing skaters and firing a shot between the goalie's pads.


There might be one thing that irks Sarnia Sting forward Nail Yakupov, the top-rated North American skater eligible for the 2012 NHL Draft.

And it has nothing to do with hockey; rather, pop culture.

"I enjoy listening to all music, like rock, sometimes country, but I really enjoy club music," Yakupov told "Not the club music that you North American people listen to."

Yakupov chuckled while continuing his explanation.

"You don't know what real club music is; it's a lot different and better in Russia," he said. "Sometimes I hate the music in the dressing room; it's garbage sometimes. I can't listen to it. I know it's fun for them, but not for me."

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"If there's anybody you want to have the puck with 10 seconds left on the clock and the game on the line, it's Nail," Sting coach Jacques Beaulieu told the team's website. "He's one of the best I've ever seen."

While Yakupov certainly enjoys those pressure-packed moments on the ice, he's also looking forward to having an opportunity to assist his team when it matters most -- in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs.

"The playoffs are important for everyone," Yakupov told "I never played in the playoffs, so I want to try to see what it's like for me. Everybody wants to play more and play at a high end. Performing in big games is better for your hockey career."

Yakupov, who could become the first Russian player selected with the No. 1 pick since Alex Ovechkin in 2004, has eight goals and 10 points in eight games during February. The 5-foot-10, 189-pound right wing is second on the team with 65 points in 37 games. He also leads the team with a plus-19 rating.

"It would be my dream to be the first pick, but the NHL is another life and it's not draft right now, so I just concentrate on my game," Yakupov said. "I have a life outside of hockey, too. I have my family, my friends, and this year just happens to be my draft year. I will continue to play my game and have fun, and then we'll see what happens after the draft."

Yakupov said he doesn't have one favorite player in the NHL, but enjoys watching several, including Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk.

"In the NHL, everyone is good at something," Yakupov said. "Somebody has skill, some legs and hands, some hockey sense, there are good fighters, good goalies … everyone is good."

And what is Yakupov's specialty?

"My bread is my legs, and I have hands," he said.

He added he's always been a huge admirer of former NHL star Pavel Bure, a three-time NHL goal-scoring leader and five-time 50-goal scorer in 12 seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, Florida Panthers and New York Rangers.

Yakupov wears No. 10 in honor of Bure.

"He played hard, worked hard and skated hard," Yakupov said of Bure. "He scored so many goals."

"It would be my dream to be the first pick, but the NHL is another life and it's not draft right now, so I just concentrate on my game ... I will continue to play my game and have fun, and then we'll see what happens after the draft." -- Nail Yakupov
Scoring goals is something Yakupov enjoys -- he led all first-year players in the OHL last season with 49 goals in 65 games, and his 101 points led all OHL rookies and shattered Steven Stamkos' team rookie record (92 points in 2006-07).

"I know Steven Stamkos and know how hard he works to do so well," Yakupov said. "He goes to the net and can skate. I skate against him in the summer when he returns, so I know a little bit about how good he is."

Yakupov met Stamkos last August at the BioSteel camp, which is run by trainers Matt Nichol and Gary Roberts and held in the Toronto area. They played on opposite teams but bonded over a few similar items -- their time in Sarnia and the fact that Yakupov could follow Stamkos as the first pick of an NHL Draft.

An ethnic Tatar, Yakupov was born in the city of Nizhnekamsk, about 500 miles east of Moscow. He was selected second, behind Edmonton Oilers prospect Martin Marincin of the Prince George Cougars, at the 2010 CHL Import draft. After his outstanding debut season with Sarnia, Yakupov played for Russia at the 2011 World Under-18 Championship and had a hat trick in a 6-4 victory against Canada in the bronze-medal game.


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Yakupov had nine assists and a plus-4 in seven games to help Russia win a silver medal at the 2012 WJC. However, he suffered a knee injury in the gold-medal game that kept him out three weeks.

While the injury and the final-game loss were tough, Yakupov said the experience he gained at the tournament was important.

"If was the first big tournament of my life," Yakupov said. "It was a lot of 1992 (birth year) guys and I'm a '93, so you play with pretty good hockey players."

He enjoyed the shifts he took with Evgeny Kuznetsov, a top prospect for the Washington Capitals, who had 6 goals and 13 points in six games.

"He's beauty on ice," Yakupov said. "I think fans would be excited to see Kuznetsov in the NHL."

Yakupov said he enjoys everything about the North American game.

"Everything is good about it … the fans, the organizations, and the players," he said. "It's not too hard to play here if you really want to play. The NHL is the best league in the world and I know that if you don't work hard, it would be tough to win."

NHL scouts and general managers have witnessed Yakupov's insatiable appetite to succeed on a regular basis the last two seasons.

"He has shown with the level that he's played that he does have the potential to be a difference-maker in a game," NHL Central Scouting Director Dan Marr told "He can just turn a game around in a couple of shifts; he's that dynamic."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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