Saturday, October 15, 2016

Yakupov to get second chance on, off ice in St. Louis

Blues willing to work with former No. 1 overall pick, 
help him adapt to new culture as hockey player, person

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- He arrived in St. Louis last Saturday and already, Nail Yakupov feels like his new hockey family has built inroads for him in the Gateway City.

The distance from Yakupov's hometown (Nizhnekamsk, Tatarstan in Russia) and St. Louis is 5,560 miles, or a 19.5-hour flight, measurable from one end of the globe to the other, it seems.

It's a bit farther than the 4,854 miles it takes to get from Nizhnekamsk to Edmonton, where Yakupov resided during the NHL season the past four seasons as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.

When looking up details of where he's from, it shows Nizhnekamsk as an industrial city and largest oil refinery and chemical plant in all of Europe. No big deal right? What does that have to do with Yakupov?
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Nail Yakupov, who had a goal and assist in his first home game with the
Blues, hopes to resurrect his career and life in St. Louis after trade.

Well, Nizhnekamsk, with a population of roughly 235,000 -- or nearly the size of St. Louis -- is considered a large Muslim population and community, and Yakupov is devout in his religious faith.

But this was a hockey talent that made his way to North America and play for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League as a 17-year-old and put up tremendous numbers (80 goals and 90 assists in 107 games). The word was out that this was a man among boys, so the Oilers drafted him first overall, and with that comes the pressure of having to perform like a top-billing player.

But Yakupov, who played 22 games in his hometown for Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik of the Kontinental Hockey League (10 goals, eight assists) before joining the Oilers during the lockout year of 2012-13, contributed 17 goals and 14 assists in 48 games. Not bad, but not exactly lighting the world on fire as -- again -- a No. 1 overall pick.

And living in a hockey hotbed like Edmonton, which had its share of top overall picks in recent years (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011, Yakupov in 2012 and Connor McDavid in 2015), high performance wasn't a wish, it was expected.

However, with each passing season, Yakupov's numbers fell, and he seemed to fall out of sorts with his teammates. On-ice performance seems to go hand-in-hand with how one interacts with teammates off the ice, and Yakupov, who eventually brought his parents and sister from Russia to Edmonton, wasn't one to socialize in ways professional athletes normally do. It may have given him a bad rap with his Oiler teammates, and his lack of "having a good time" didn't get the blessing from teammates, and eventually it affected Yakupov's performance on the ice.

After slipping to lows in goals (eight), and points (23) in 60 games last season, it was clear that for Yakupov to resurrect his career was through change, and the Blues came calling. After failed attempts to deal away Yakupov in the off-season, Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli struck a deal with Blues GM Doug Armstrong. The Blues gave up prospect Zach Pochiro and a conditional third-round pick in 2017 (second round pick in 2018 should Yakupov score at least 15 goals this season) for the labeled underachiever.

The Blues heard all the negative things that perhaps scared other potential teams away from Yakupov, who has shown to have high character at a young age (he paid for dinner and a night of lodging for a homeless man in Edmonton when he was 21) but could never live up to the hype of a No. 1 overall pick despite flashes of brilliance. The Blues didn't care.

"It all goes hand-in-hand, but for us, we want him to just tune out all the noise," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Yakupov, who scored a goal and had an assist on the game-winner Thursday in a 3-2 victory against Minnesota. "What he was, what he's supposed to be, what he's going to be, we just want him to be what he is and let us decide how much we're going to play him and when we're going to leak him into other spots on the team, special teams, whatever. Just let us leak that all in, but what he is is what's important to us. 

"For us, he's a hockey player. Where he was drafted, who drafted him, how much money he makes is not relevant to this coaching staff. We just want a hockey player, and so we're trying to develop a hockey player. If you've got a young guy that's a good hockey player -- because he is a good player -- you build a foundation. No different than we did with (Robby) Fabbri, no different than we did with (Jaden) Schwartz. We tried to put in a foundation. Well we're trying to do the same with 'Yak.' Just put a foundation in there. Where you were before doesn't matter one bit because what's important is where he's at now. What I like about him, maybe somebody else doesn't like, but the part that I like about him is he's got an element in his game that we need, which is team speed. He's a quick player. He's got a lot of agility, he's got a lot of get-up-and-go, he plays at a high pace, and I think that's going to really have a positive affect for him and for us, and that's a good thing."

The old saying is that perhaps a change of scenery does a player good. And the Blues, who have experience dealing with No. 1 picks and expectations when they drafted Erik Johnson, who they later traded to Colorado, with the No. 1 overall pick in 2006.

The Blues will bring Yakupov along carefully, and Yakupov can ingratiate himself into more responsibility by executing what is asked, not necessarily wooing and wowing.

He performed well in just his second game with the Blues and fourth time overall with them on the ice. But when asked if he finally felt comfortable, Yakupov's response sounded like it came from the heart and of a young man who had lost soul in Edmonton.

"I tried," he said after the win Thursday. "Honestly, it was really tough this week because it's not that easy. Doesn't matter what team you're on. I know (the) Blues are a really good team, really good guys that are really friendly. It's a really good family here. When you've been away for a long time, live in different country, different city and different friends, you pretty much have nothing outside. It's really good here, but as soon as you go outside after practice, you're just alone. You're lonely and those kind of things get into your brain and in your mind and you have to fight that. I'm fighting, and now it's going to be much easier. I'm happy to get two points tonight and it's going to be much easier for me to sleep tonight."

Off the ice, Yakupov is starting over. He's learning a new country, a new city and new teammates, who seem more than willing to give him the support needed of a young man reaching out in ways he obviously didn't get in his recent past.

"All the guys have been trying to help him out, whatever it is, about the town or our systems or the coaches," said teammate Magnus Paajarvi, who played with Yakupov in 2012-13 in Edmonton. "So far he's been coming in really good."

Fellow Russian Vladimir Tarasenko, who was the first to text Yakupov to wish him happy birthday last week, knows the player the Blues are getting, but it's clear Yakupov's new teammates want him to feel comfortable off the ice as much as on it.

"He has a great personality," Tarasenko said of Yakupov. "I don't really look on the hockey stuff. It's more important for me what kind of guy he is in the locker room. He's a great guy, great person."

Said fellow newcomer Carter Hutton: "Obviously I'm new too, but at same time, I've been through so many different situations and maybe a little more experience with … I came a long road to get here too, so I've learned to deal with a lot of things and your mind is a powerful thing. You learn to deal with stuff that goes on throughout your career. It's hard, but at times, if you can control that, he obviously has the skill and the production. 

"You come from an organization where everything is magnified. You're the first overall pick, there's so much to deal with and obviously in their eyes, it didn't work out the way they wanted, but at the same time, he has a lot of potential and a lot of greatness. I think guys here have done a good thing of, we're not worried about the past, just worry about the future. I think all the guys have done a good job of helping him fit and feel comfortable and I think he's going to be an integral part of this hockey team."

The Blues know there will be mistakes along the way, but they're willing to be patient and teach Yakupov along the way. Edmonton obviously felt it had run its course with Yakupov, and he obviously felt a discord within the organization. But Yakupov, who will also feel better once he's able to bring his family to St. Louis, seems willing to learn and just be "one of the guys" instead of "The guy."

"Yeah, I think everything's teachable, but I look at teachable months in months, not days, not weeks," Hitchcock said. "I look at it in months. So I look at the things we want him to get better at, it might be 4-6 months before he's where we want. And in the meantime, what he's really good at, we want him to do that daily. So that's our focus right now. What he's good at, we just want him to bring that every day. The rest we'll teach him. We'll let it leak in and bleed in and well keep touching it every day, but we're not in any hurry for that. What we want him to not lose is what he's really good at. Don't be discouraged by the things you need to get better at. We've got a long-term outlook on it and hopefully he does, too.

"I think what (Yakupov accomplished Thursday) is it makes him part of the team. He feels like he's a contributing member of the family. It gives him another level of confidence. The points matter; they obviously matter, but he had a lot of good play. There was, again, a lot of special teams because of it, but he had a lot of good play. He's a much stronger player than people realize. In time, it looks like he might be a real good fit for us for the way we're playing. ... I like his tenacity to play offense. He's not looking for easy ice. He's going into hard areas all over the rink. It's a good sign for us. Hopefully he catches up to what we're trying to do here quickly and keeps contributing because he's got great skill, he's got great speed. He's strong as heck on the puck and (Wednesday) night, I said I was surprised by how good his conscience was. Now he's starting to extend himself more and more so hopefully he can keep it up."

Yakupov, who had 51 goals and 61 assists in 252 NHL games prior to arriving in St. Louis with a combined minus-88 with the Oilers, has begun anew with an organization that's used to a winning culture, something he never experienced in Edmonton.

"I had some good days and bad days and I had a lot of pressure on my head and a lot of thoughts," Yakupov said. "Especially with the way things were going every day. It affects you in the game and your life, but I tried my best to not think about it. Now I hope this is over and this is a team where I can be and play and do the best I can. I believe it's a really nice team and a top team in the league. 

"... This is the first time I'm going to play on a really good team, a team that play pretty much every year in the playoffs. To feel that winning, I think it's awesome because I don't know what winning is and I'd like to feel that. This is a team where you can feel it."

Certainly in more ways than just on the ice.

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