A tribute to the one-of-a-kind Nail Yakupov

He was the first overall pick in the 2012 draft and part of a young Edmonton cohort that looked like it would make noise. Instead, Nail Yakupov is heading home.

After six years in the NHL, Yakupov is reportedly signing with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, effectively ending his career in North America.

And I’m gonna miss Yakupov. Professionally, I’ve known him since his first year in North America, when he came over to play in the OHL with the Sarnia Sting. He was a happy-go-lucky kid with a ton of offensive skill and he had a great foil in Alex Galchenyuk, the worldly Sarnia teammate who played straight man – and tried to play translator – for the daffy Russian.

The first time we spoke, THN was still doing video and I was interviewing the pair with Ted Cooper filming and producing. Galchenyuk, born in the U.S. but raised in Europe, speaks multiple languages and wanted to translate when it was Yakupov’s turn on camera, but the right winger refused. Yakupov had as much enthusiasm as possible, but only knew a little English. When asked to describe Galchenyuk, he said “good hands, good head, good smile,” which he punctuated with a bizarre grin meant to hammer home the point. Off-camera, Galchenyuk was dying laughing.

Once he was drafted, Yakupov kept up the positivity. At a prospects event organized by Upper Deck trading cards and the NHLPA, he took pictures of kids at the rink who were taking pictures of him – and it was genuine enthusiasm on his part. When we interviewed him this time, he said Galchenyuk could sleep over when Montreal came to play Edmonton.

Then the lockout hit and Yakupov went back to Russia to play in the KHL. But I would see him on his home turf that year, as the world juniors were hosted by Ufa. Despite being the captain, Yakupov didn’t do a lot of media during the tourney, which drove the North American reporters crazy. I could see where they were coming from, but if we’ve all learned anything in the passing years, it’s that media relations with Russia aren’t the most straight-forward.

I happened to bump into Yakupov in an arena stairwell during the tournament and once again, he was really cool with me. He knew the reporters wanted to talk to him, but that’s not what Russian brass wanted, so what could he do?

On the ice, Yakupov had one good season – his first. During that lockout-truncated 2012-13 campaign, he notched 31 points in 48 games for the Oilers. Defense had never been a priority with the nifty winger, but under Edmonton coach Ralph Krueger, Yakupov was at least willing to learn and put in some video room time. Then, the Oilers fired Krueger. After that, Yakupov had one full season with Dallas Eakins, until 2014-15, when Eakins was fired midway through the campaign. Craig MacTavish stepped behind the bench for a few games, before Todd Nelson came on. Next season, Nelson was gone and Todd McLellan took over.

If you haven’t put the pieces together, Yakupov didn’t get a lot of consistency behind the bench during his stay in Edmonton. That defensive work never came around and eventually he was traded to St. Louis. Things didn’t work out with the Blues, so he went to Colorado this past season.

In the end, Yakupov never had a 20-goal campaign in the NHL and never hit 35 points in any given season. Was he mishandled in Edmonton? Probably. Was his early success in the OHL (49 goals and 101 points as a rookie in Sarnia) just not translatable to the NHL game? Apparently so. But I want to leave you with one more story.

Once the lockout ended, I was in Chicago to do a story on the Blackhawks and Edmonton was the opponent. At the end of the morning skate, Yakupov challenged another young player (I want to say Jordan Eberle, but I could be wrong) to a competition. Whoever could flip a puck through the opening in the handle of the milk crate in the least amount of tries wouldn’t have to gather all the pucks up at the end of the skate. The line was about six inches away from the crate. It took about a dozen tries before Yakupov’s opponent popped one through – the opening wasn’t much bigger than the puck itself. Yakupov then stepped up and popped the puck through on the first go. Watching from the stands, I thought to myself that Yakupov had probably mastered that trick years ago, unbeknownst to his teammate. It was a pretty good little joke.

And as always, Yakupov skated off with a great big smile.