Edmonton Oilers

Nail Yakupov interview with Dropping the Gloves podcast

At this point in time, Nail Yakupov is regarded as one of, if not the, biggest draft bust in Edmonton Oilers and NHL history. The number one overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft came in with high expectations to add more to the growing young core the Oilers were accumulating through the early 2010s.

He broke onto the scene in Edmonton and had a respectable start. In his rookie season, Yakupov had 17 goals and 31 points in 48 games. He made a quick impression on Oilers fans, as well, with his iconic sliding celebration goal that tied a game against the Los Angeles Kings late in the third period after the original tying goal was called back.

That was one of the high points of his NHL career, unfortunately, as he did not pan out and never exceeded 33 points in a single NHL season.

Earlier this week, Yakupov joined John Scott and Tim Wirzburger on the Dropping the Gloves podcast for a lengthy, in-depth interview about his experiences playing hockey around the world. Here’s a recap of what he had to say about his career.

Differences between Russia and North America

In his youth, there was not a whole lot of hype around Yakupov compared to other high draft picks coming out of Canada. He did not have much exposure to the NHL, and subsequently NHL scouts, as his focus was on his hometown team in Russia. It was not his intention or goal to go to North America. He wanted to play for his hometown team.

So where Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby have hype around them for years before they are draft eligible, Yakupov was relatively unknown and did not have to deal with the pressure and media.

There were some major differences in the environment between Russia and North America within organizations. In Edmonton, he was provided access to free things (cars, phones), people recognize him, the training is so different, the players are provided with top-tier whatever they need (alluding to trainers, medical treatment, and nutrition/lifestyle coaches). But in Russia, there were some quality differences, like fewer coaches in organizations, many of whom aren’t quite of the same calibre, and he has to go find his own support staff, especially on the smaller teams with less money.

Things were noticeably different, however, when he played in St. Petersburg, one of the bigger, richer teams of the KHL, a place where he was outwardly happy to be. Players received more kickbacks, bonuses, and better pay. However, it was still hard to mimic what he had in the NHL with deeply rooted systems and tactics found in the Russian hockey environment.

Making his way to North America and his draft year

It was Igor Larionov (his agent) who got Yakupov his first real exposure to North American hockey. The legendary Russian forward, who was instrumental in getting (then) Soviet players over to the NHL in the 1990s, invited Yakupov over as he had a chance to get drafted and play with the Sarnia Sting.

Yakupov notes early on that the environment in Canada was significantly different. All of a sudden, he was getting attention. From the main media outlets talking about him to the Canadian hockey world to even just the fans in Sarnia who were buying his jerseys, much to Yakupov’s confusion. It helps when he had a fantastic introduction to the OHL as well, with 49 goals and 101 points in his rookie season with the Sting.

After his explosive offensive performance in his first half season with the Sting, it became apparent that Yakupov was bound to be a high draft pick. Larionov, at this point, began introducing him to various people around the league in preparation for his name to start hitting draft boards. From here, Yakupov started meeting people around the league. Coaches, GMs, scouts, players.

Into his second season, Yakupov started feeling the pressure of being a highly touted prospect gaining significant draft attention. Particularly in the draft interviews. At this point, he did not speak much English yet. Interestingly, he did not seem to spend much time with Oilers staff during the season or draft interview process.

In a completely unfamiliar environment in a country he barely speaks the language of at 17 or 18 years of age, Yakupov was understandably uncomfortable and overwhelmed, feeling homesick and wanting to go back home. Possibly explaining the story from Brian Burke about his draft interview being the worst he’d ever experienced.

Yakupov’s tenure with the Oilers

Yakupov, on his entrance to Edmonton as the reigning number one overall pick in the draft, was immediately subject to immense pressure. These were years for the Oilers where, in the midst of the decade of darkness, the team was perpetually terrible (three consecutive number one overall picks terrible), and looking for a glimmer of hope, a saviour. Someone to come in and fix it. He became another target for those expectations.

This is a lot of pressure for a kid, as Yakupov himself notes in the interview. To the extent where he admits he was not excited for it and did not handle it well nor did he have the resources to handle it well.

Through the first season, Yakupov was not able to communicate or bond with the players in the locker room. Another factor making the pressure of being a number one overall pick in a hockey-crazy environment more difficult to handle. He was shy and found it hard to be close with them. Even with fellow Russian Nikolai Khabibulin, who was the Oilers goalie at the time, Yakupov did not really connect until the final days of the season.

Yakupov raved about one player that, in the early days of his time with the Oilers, stood out as a huge supporter and friend, Darcy Hordichuk. He says that Hordichuk picked him up and drove him around during rookie camp right after the draft, helped him get set up in Edmonton and getting him supplies, took him shopping. Not to mention the leadership and support after good and bad games throughout the season.

Although he only got a short tenure with the Oilers, Yakupov was very fond of former coach Ralph Krueger. Yakupov alluded to his coach being more than just a coach, but taking on a mentorship role and teaching the young forward beyond just hockey and tried his best to harness his excitement to keep pushing him forward and growing while being patient and giving him a chance to succeed. He was one big reason why Yakupov’s first year was good. Until his unexpected firing from the Oilers coaching staff.

Through the rough years, the impact of the losing environment took its toll on the Oilers’ locker room. It was hard to find support and things around to help boost morale. Yakupov felt many players were stuck going through the motions and just wanting to play their game and leave. And who can blame them? Winning one of every five or six games is not going to be a great confidence booster for highly competitive athletes.

Players like Matt Hendricks, Boyd Gordon, and Ryan Smyth were standouts during these tough times as hard competitors who wore their hearts on their sleeves and competed as hard as they possibly could. But ultimately, it was challenging for these types of players to make enough of an impact on the team and culture to do it on their own. The losing culture won that battle. The younger players on the roster at the time did not know what it took to win, compared to the aforementioned vets who had competed and had success in the past.

Ultimately, Yakupov was grateful for the Oilers organization and says he was treated unbelievably well by the team during his time there.

The impact of frequent coaching changes

Over the first four seasons of Yakupov’s career, they had four coaches cycle through the Oilers organization. He talked about how difficult it can be with the constant shuffle of people in those positions as it gets hard to learn about the person in the role and figure out who to trust.

A huge turning point for Yakupov came early in his second season when he was healthy scratched for a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. After making a mistake and getting benched in a prior game, he was scratched later on after a tough start to the season in which he was held pointless in his first six games. This soured the relationship between him and new head coach Dallas Eakins to the point that him and Larionov discussed a trade request. That was ultimately not followed through on at the time.

Yakupov did not have much positive to say about Eakins’ tenure with Edmonton, noting that there was not much teaching going on. The environment was tense, filled with raised voices and blame rather than teaching and growing a group of young players and building a winning culture.

The post-Edmonton years

After being traded out of Edmonton, he immediately noticed a difference in St. Louis with the quality of veterans, their proven track record, and the environment and culture around the team. The question in the locker room was not “will we make the playoffs?”, it was “how far will we go in the playoffs?”

Yakupov talked about how the interactions between the players and amongst the team was different. There was a stronger sense of battle for each other, fighting for each other and standing up for teammates. A trait that was noticeably absent many years in the Oilers locker room when dealing with the ‘bus-stop’ mentality that was attributed to some of those teams.

In the interview, Yakupov was emphatic that Nathan MacKinnon is one of, if not the best, player he has ever played with. Not only for his talent but for his drive and dedication to his craft. MacKinnon was the ultimate competitor, putting in so much time and effort in practice to fine-tune his game. Using his leadership and stature to drive not only himself but the team forward. So it came as no surprise when the Avalanche were able to win the Cup with him.

After talking about how much he enjoyed the chance to play in the KHL during the lockout that took away the first half of what would have been his rookie season, Yakupov eventually went back to Russia after his time in Colorado. Although he was waiting on NHL offers, he decided to just go back home.

During the 2020–21 season, Yakupov was traded to Omsk Avangard where he played for Bob Hartley. In the season and a half those two spent together, Yakupov says that he was the best coach he ever had and learned an incredible amount from him. The two became very close and keep in touch to this day as Hartley still talks to Yakupov about his game.

After leaving the NHL and spending the last five seasons in the KHL, Yakupov was asked about desires to come back to the NHL. Although he would go back to North America for the lifestyle, amenities, and perks that come with being on an NHL team, he does not have much of a drive or expectations to as he has gotten comfortable at home in Russia.

Check out the full interview to hear more about Yakupov’s experiences!

Sean Laycock

Sean is a stubborn, lifelong Oilers fan who lives by the motto "There is always next year".

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