VANCOUVER - It's not the Edmonton Oilers or even the Oklahoma City Barons, but Nizhnekamsk in the KHL has worked out nicely for Oilers prospect Nail Yakupov as the NHL lockout continues into its third month.
Originally assigned to the OHL's Sarnia Sting due to his ineligibility to compete in the American Hockey League, Yakupov and his agent Igor Larionov explored other options with the same goal in mind: to play in a pro league, against higher competition until the NHL returns.
Finding a 'home' back home in Nizhnekamsk where he now plays with the KHL's Neftekhimik, Yakupov has scored 10 goals and 14 points in 13 games.
"We spoke to (Oilers GM) Steve Tambellini and (President of Hockey Operations) Kevin Lowe," Larionov said Tuesday morning in Vancouver. "It was a much better setup for him to play in Oklahoma City with Nugent-Hopkins, Hall and Eberle. Then he could have learned the North American style better, get used to the smaller rinks and get used to the grind of the pro season.
"But that option wasn't (available). Plan B was to go to the KHL to play against men. He has more goals than Ovechkin, more goals than Datsyuk and more goals than Malkin. It tells you he's right there he's not playing on the best team in the KHL, but he's helping the team win games and is keeping them in the playoff race."
Back in Canada as he now competes in the 2012 Subway Super Series against various Canadian Hockey League squads, Yakupov enters Wednesday's game against the WHL leading Team Russia with two goals and four points in four games.
Yakupov, who's sporting the ‘C' as team captain, has been Russia's best player throughout despite hogging most of the Canadians' attention on D. In addition, he's absorbed his surroundings, has been appreciative of the supportive Canadian crowds and has represented himself well as an ambassador for what the great, longstanding Canada-Russia rivalry stands for.
Eccentric at times with his creative post-goal celebrations, Yakupov's enthusiasm is fully supported by his agent. Larionov, who was 11 years old during the '72 Summit Series, recalled a speech by Canadian NHL legend Phil Esposito at Tuesday's media brunch at a harbor-side White Spot restaurant:
"Like Phil said, 'we never smiled when we scored goals.' I don't think (Nail's) celebrations are bad. It's a new generation. They like to do it. When you score a goal it's like a masterpiece that you created about you and your linemates, so it's a joy.
"I like that. I like the way that he's focused on every game, every shift like that. He wants to be the best. That tells you he's mentally and physically ready for the challenge."
And when it comes to challenges, this one is on a whole other level.
Canada. Russia. It doesn't get any bigger.
"Playing against Canada at any level, it's always good hockey," Larionov said. "With the World Juniors coming up, the Russian coach is building his team based on what he sees during the [Subway Super Series]. That's the biggest test for the boys. When you're going against the best players in North America, that's how you're going to see what your future is going to be like. The Russians say it's the best exhibition games they can imagine to be playing leading up to the World Juniors.
"At any level you see a comparison about where we're at. It's all about who's the best – [the rivalry is] still the same.
"There's no ‘hatred.' But it's still Canada-Russia. These are the biggest games so far of the season. It's still a competition. The Russians would be proud to win the series. I don't think it's happened ever in its history. The game (Wednesday) will be a crucial one. It's not the World Juniors, but it's still very prestigious."
Perhaps more than anyone else on the roster, Yakupov has embraced it. The pride, prestige and honour in representing his country has helped lead to bigger dreams on the National League scale -- when the time comes. The packed barns, rambunctious sold-out crowds and games of such importance have driven up his appetite to compete against the world's best in the NHL.
"He wants it," said Larionov, a 14-year NHL veteran who broke into the league at 29 and retired at 44. "When we came to get him a house and get him settled in Edmonton back in August, I told him that he should come with me to Detroit to train with me and a couple of my other players. He came for two weeks and spent every day on the ice and in the gym. With the way he was working out, getting ready for the season and how he wants to always be the best, (his success) is no surprise to me. I know the league and I know Nail -- I know what he can do.
"It's hard to say right now, but I could compare him to Pavel Bure easy," he noted, adding that he was (appropriately) in attendance Monday night in Toronto to see Bure honoured as one of the League's all-time greats. "But he's a young kid -- he's 19-years-old. He's quick, he's got a good mind and can see the ice so well. He needs someone to play with him that can play at the same level. I watched him in Game 3 in this series vs. Guelph and I saw that. He needs somebody like that alongside him."
Larionov agreed that he'll get it in Edmonton, as the Oilers' roster is blessed with young stars that can skate, shoot and score on or above the level that Yakupov can.
"It's not about how many goals you score -- it's about how well you play as a team. I always tell him that."
Larionov believes the NHL work stoppage will end within a couple weeks. But, on the chance it doesn't and Yakupov's 2012-13 season continues in the KHL, Nizhnekamsk will release him to go play in the 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa.
Still, it's a situation neither Larionov nor Yakupov want considering he's chomping at the bit to get his big-league career going.
"He can't wait to play in Edmonton," Larionov said. "And I can't wait to see him in an Oilers uniform."
Neither can we.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick