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Oilers welcome Yakupov with open arms

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
EDMONTON - Welcome to the NHL, Nail. On your left: Ales Hemsky. In 500+ National Hockey League games, he's collected over 100 goals, 400 points and is an Olympic Medalist with the Czech Republic. On your right: Ladislav Smid, one of the League's leading shot-blockers last season, who also represented the Czechs at the 2007 World Hockey Championship.

Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz and Captain Canada, Ryan Smyth, are all within shouting distance. Stanley Cup-winning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin is stationed directly across the ping-pong table.

Has it hit you yet?

"When I was young I watched him on TV when he won the Stanley Cup," smiled Yakupov. "He picked me up from the hotel and brought me to the rink this morning, so he's great. He's my teammate and I'm part of the team now, so it's pretty good.

"Great atmosphere in the locker when I met the guys. Great rink, great ice. Thanks to the guys and the Oilers organization for taking me in. I feel good here."

Yakupov did stumble at times during practice Thursday, but his teammates were there to pick him up. Whether it was tapping him on the pads as a sign of support or explaining the drills in better detail, Eberle and Ryan Smyth were among those helping the 18-year-old gather his bearings.

The 5'11", 185-pound right-winger spent the League's 113-day-long labour strife with Nizhnekamsk of the KHL, posting 10 goals and 18 points in 22 games. Over the past week there had been some reports about certain NHL starts expressing interest in staying across the pond -- but in Yakupov's mind, there was only ever one option worth considering.

"He's coming now, he has a contract," Yakupov said of the ongoing Ilya Kovalchuk saga. The New Jersey Devil had reportedly said he wished to stay in St. Petersburg, but will (however begrudgingly, it seems) honour his 15-year, $100M NHL contract.

"For me, I said when the lockout was done I'm going right after to go play in Edmonton."

Still, the opportunity to play in a professional hockey league was a great opportunity under the circumstances.

"I think it (worked out well) because I got to play against men," Yakupov said. "It was a great experience and I think it's pretty good before the NHL."

In addition to a strong stint in the KHL, Yakupov also represented Team Russia at the 2012 Subway Super Series and 2013 World Junior Championship. With an overtime win to seal it, Yakupov and the Russians escaped with a Bronze Medal victory over his Oilers teammate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Team Canada.

In seven games, Yakupov collected three goals, eight points and a +2 rating.

"It was a good (experience)," Yakupov said. "We wanted to win the Gold but we lost. We did win the Bronze and beat Canada, so it was a good experience. I got to play against Nuge, too. He's a good hockey player and in the last game I played, I think I played every shift against him."

Yakupov, who will wear No. 64 with the Oilers this season ("Six plus four. Ten. I wanted 64," he said), has currently set up shop in a hotel but will be on the move again soon -- his mom, dad and sister will be moving in with him to a home he eyeballed earlier in the summer when he arrived for the club's development camp.

Joking with veteran scribe and Hall of Famer Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun, Yakupov had another location in mind. The banners high above the ice and replica Stanley Cups inside the Oilers locker room all he needs.

"I stayed in the locker room (Wednesday night)," laughed Yakupov. "I'm still here."

-- Ryan Dittrick, | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick

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