During the month of November I had the luxury of being able to go to the Subway Super Series game 3 in Ottawa.For those that don't know the Super Series is a 6 game series between QMJHL,OHL,WHL allstar teams and a Team Russia junior team. I was very excited for this game, it consisted of many of the top OHL players all in one game, but when I saw that Russian sniper, Nail Yakupov, of the Sarnia Sting was selected to play that game with Russia, I knew it would be a special game.
I expected Yakupov to live up to his hype as the top draft eligible prospect, but he did so much more then just live up to the hype. He was a game changer every time he was on the ice. When Yakupov stepped on, all the momentum switched over to Team Russia, he controlled the pace, the puck always followed him. I've never witnessed anything like it. In a game that consisted of most of the top OHL players, most of which were already drafted, and the best junior players Russia had to offer, this draft eligible kid was easily the best player out there. And after the game I had the chance to meet him, and despite the loss, he took the time to sign an autographs for fans, and take pictures, he could have ignored them like a lot of the Russian players did but Yakupov didn't. He isn't just a great hockey player, he's also a great guy.
Yakupov's biggest downfall, which is no fault of his own, is that he's Russian. As many of us know Russian hockey players have a very bad reputation when it comes to North American hockey. The stereotype is that they're lazy,one dimensional players, who care about nothing more then money. On top of that bad rep, a few players have left the NHL for their home countries league, the KHL,which usually pays more.This only worsens the image of Russian hockey players. Yakupov gets the same knock on him that every other Russian player gets, lazy,plays with no heart or drive, not a team player,he'll run to the KHL first chance he gets,etc. I'll be the first to admit that I was hard on Russians, but since I started following Yakupov and Grigorenko I've had a change of heart. When I saw Yakupov play, he played with more heart and drive then any other player there, he competed harder then anyone else. The effort was always there. I haven't seen him play since, other then the World Juniors on TV but I know he always competes, he's that type of player. He loves the sport of hockey, I saw a piece on him and he talked about how when he goes to the rink and he just shuts everything out, it's just hockey. That's the type of passion you want from a player, it's what separates elite players, from good players, puts them above everyone else, with that said Yakupov is an elite player. Yakupov came to Canada to play in the OHL, and he left one year before a lot of Russian players do when they come to play in the CHL. He wants to play in the NHL, and he proved that by coming over here two years before his draft rather then one. He could have stayed in Russia and gotten paid a lot of money to play there, but he still chose to come here, I think that says a lot about him. I think a lot of the "lack of heart, or passion" comments come from people who read, or saw that he skipped out on the CHL Top Prospects game, but what people fail to see is that at the end of the day his doctor told him he shouldn't attend the game since he was just coming back from an injury. Yes he was playing with Sarnia for a few games before the Prospects Game but he you can bet his minutes were lowered, and he was taking it easier then normal, but at the Prospects Game he would have had to go all out, and play against players who were going all out, so it was probably best for him to sit it out.
Yakupov does have his faults though, but he's young and most players do. Yes it's true, his play in his own zone is average at best, he doesn't help out all that much without the puck, but he doesn't hurt the team by it. He also plays a bit to physical, and wild at times which sets himself up for big hits, and injuries. All these faults can be fixed with proper coaching, and maturing though. The positives that Nail Yakupov can bring to the team that drafts him are far greater then any of the negatives. He has game breaking speed, and a lethal shot, plus he has a matching set of hands to go with the speed and shot as well. He uses his teammates more then people think too. I'm sure a lot of you have seen his famous interview after the Canada-Russia game, some people were commenting saying he was arrogant, but that was just a kid who was truly excited about beating his countries biggest rival. In my opinion that interview is a perfect example of the passion, and heart he puts into the game. Obviously english isn't his first language so some of the wording may have came out as cocky but I think he meant well by the comments.
Nail Yakupov may be Russian but he is the top prospect in this years draft and there aren't many people who disagree with that. I think it's unfair for people to associate Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, and even Alex Galchenyuk, despite the fact that he's technically American, with the old Russian stereotype. I think it's time to embrace this new rising of Russian stars and give them a fair chance in the eyes of all fans. These players are all extremely talented and every team in the NHL should want them.