Talented Russian the likely top pick

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There's a pretty good chance that Nail Yakupov's name will be the first one called in the NHL Entry Draft Friday night at Consol Energy Center.

The real issue is how it will be pronounced.

Yakupov, who grew up about 500 miles east of Moscow, is an ethnic Tatar, and the correct way to say his name apparently is along the lines of "Nah-HEEL Yah-KOO-pov."

But while some people might fret over such details, Yakupov isn't one of them.

He's made it clear that if people are more comfortable calling him "Nail" (such as the pointed piece of metal) and "YAH-koo-pov," he has no problem with it.

Which is pretty much the way most scouts feel about his game.

Oh, they might wish he was a bit bigger -- Yakupov, a right winger, is listed as 5 feet 10, 189 -- especially when he has no qualms about playing a physical game, and his defensive work lacks polish, but Yakupov's offensive gifts are generally regarded as the finest in the 2012 talent pool.

Some talent evaluators have compared his skating to that of his childhood idol, Pavel [The Russian Rocket] Bure, his release barely is visible to the naked eye and his shot is hard and accurate.

"The explosiveness he brings, he's a major league talent," Phoenix general manager Don Maloney said. "We all know it. He reminds me of a Pavel Bure-type player. He moves quick, moves the puck well so, yeah, he's exciting to watch."

Yakupov, playing for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League, put up 31 goals and 38 assists in 42 games in 2011-12, despite having his season disrupted by back, knee and head injuries.

That was one winter after he accumulated 49 goals and 101 points to shatter Steven Stamkos' franchise records for a first-year player.

"He had a couple of injuries this year, but over the last couple of years, he's done stuff that ... he broke Stamkos' record for a rookie," said Tyler Wright, director of amateur scouting for Columbus. "He's done some pretty amazing stuff.

"You see what Stamkos has done when he went in [to major junior hockey], and what he's become now. I'm not saying he's Stamkos, by any means, but when you're that high-end, explosive guy, who knows what the limit is?"

Edmonton owns the No. 1 choice for the third consecutive year by virtue of winning the draft lottery, and thus will have the first opportunity to select Yakupov.

The Oilers, who have grafted gifted young forwards such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle onto their depth chart in recent years, however, have not committed to claiming Yakupov.

That's because Edmonton's personnel on defense doesn't begin to rival its collection of talent up front, so it's conceivable the Oilers will invest their pick in a defenseman such as Ryan Murray.

Murray, renowned for his heady and poised play, seems as close to NHL-ready as any defenseman can be, but certainly does not have Yakupov's ability to pull fans out of their seats.

It's unlikely that any of the other prospects who will be chosen Friday and Saturday do, either.

"He's a very exciting player, for sure," Wright said. "Dynamic. Game-changing. Absolutely. Very high-end skill."

If the Oilers pass on Yakupov, the Blue Jackets would be the next in line to take him. That would seem, at first blush, to be a major break for Columbus, but it wouldn't necessarily be viewed that way in central Ohio.

The Blue Jackets, you see, have had promising, high-profile Russian players such as Nikolai Zherdev and Nikita Filatov underachieve their way out of the franchise's plans, so it's possible management would opt for a "safer" selection, such as Swedish left winger Filip Forsberg.

Then again, Columbus might be swayed to take Yakupov because of his talent and the commitment he has shown to playing -- and thriving in -- North American hockey.

Unlike Zherdev and Filatov, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean to play two seasons of major junior hockey before being eligible for the draft. That has allowed him to become fluent in English and completely comfortable with the style of play on the smaller rinks in North America.

That's part of the reason Jay Heinbuck, the Penguins' director of amateur scouting, and most others who assess young talent believe Yakupov will step directly into the NHL this fall.

Which that might be part of the reason Yakupov seems so unfailingly upbeat.

"You have to smile every day," he said recently, "because you just live once."

That one life should give people more than enough to learn who Yakupov is.

And perhaps even how to pronounce his name.


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published June 18, 2012 12:00 AM


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