After talking to Nail Yakupov, the Nation Network’s Andrey Osadchenko had a chance to sit down with his agent (and Hockey Hall of Famer) Igor Larionov. Larionov represents not only Yakupov, but another player – Alex Galchenyuk – in contention for a top-five spot at this year’s NHL Entry Draft.
AO: How did you start working with Nail Yakupov?
IL: I talked to his father, Rail. I went to Nizhnekamsk to see him play three years ago. I wanted to get him to know better. I didn’t want to chat on the phone; I wanted to have a face-to-face talk. I talked to his family and himself. We discussed who he wanted to be and where he wanted to play. And we came to a conclusion that he wants to play in North America. He went there a few times for short tournaments and friendly games. He really liked it there. My job was to find the best possible team for him. I picked the Sarnia Sting. First of all, it’s with a one-hour drive from Detroit [where Larionov lives]. Second of all, the team is owned by Dino Ciccarelli’s family, and I played with him. Besides, they already had [Alex] Galchenyuk.
AO: How important is this?
IL: It is very important for Russian players to be in the right conditions and right hands to develop. You can’t just put a guy on a random QMJHL, OHL or WHL team. You have to be very picky about it or the guy will be lost. It’s very important for me that my guys are close to me. I want to be able to help them right away if they have any problems.
AO: Is it fair to say Yakupov has exactly what you want to see in a player?
IL: Nail is certainly very talented. In everything. He’s always been a stand-out kind of person – even when he was a kid. He wants to be a leader. I spent a lot of time with him these past two years in Sarnia and I always saw this trace of character in him. It’s a good thing. He always wants to be the best, which means he’s getting to his goal little by little. There are other things he has developed – he responds to reporters in the right way. Besides, he doesn’t get excited about the draft that much anymore. He can’t control when he’s going to be picked – first, second or fifth. I understand it. These kids don’t. At his very first press conference in Sarnia he said: ‘I want to be #1, I want to be the player in the CHL and I want to help my team to win the championship’. All these years he did exactly what he said he would. He proved it not only with his talent, but with his work-ethic. He ‘lives’ in every shift. He steps on the ice and he enjoys playing hockey. He gives 120% every night.
AO: And that is something you like the most about him?
IL: Yes, indeed. I think hockey is a very simple game but a complicated one at the same time. In certain circumstances the players lose their valuable skills. My job – with all my knowledge of hockey and respect – is to talk to head-coach and general manager and explain to them how they should properly use players. It’s my priority. Before I put my player on any team, I’ve got to make sure what sort of team this is, who works in this team, what concept of player development do they have and so on. It’s really important that not only the player developed his talented and got familiar with North American type of hockey. There are no 17-year-old players who know everything. They think they do but they don’t. They say that 27-year-old Ovechkin has problems with his defensive game. What do you expect from an 18-year-old kid?
This is why it’s so important to make sure there are no misunderstandings with the coach. Every time I talk to a coach I point out that it’s very important for the kids to develop in the right way. They must use the opportunity to its maximum. They need to develop the skills they already have and learn new ones. Plus they need to be able to improvise.
AO: In Russian junior league – MHL – both Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko were third-liners. Why? Was their talent overlooked back home?
IL: I’m not in a position to comment this. I don’t live there. Sure, I visit Russia and I am Russian. One thing I can say is that here the talent gets noticed. Here you’re given time to show what you’re capable of. Maybe they were under the radar in Russia because there they want older guys to play more. Maybe they thought it was too early for them to play on that level; I don’t know. This is what we‘ve got now, though – they weren’t noticed there, but here everyone can see they’re really good. You may not be ready physically, but if you’re ready moral-wise, psychologically and you feel like you’re ready to play – why shouldn’t you play? Here they trust you more and you can play. In North America the level of competitiveness is really high. I think the CHL has a better level of play than MHL. This is what I think. And I watch hockey here and there.
AO: You said it’s important that whatever team picks Yakupov, they need to make sure they need him. Do you think the Oilers need Yakupov?
IL: I talk to all NHL GMs. The day before this interview I talked to Steve Tambellini and Kevin Lowe. They really like Nail. However, at this point they can’t promise anything. The same goes for Columbus. Scott Howson, Craig Patrick and Tyler Wright spent two days in Sarnia with Yakupov and his family. It’s a serious indication they really want him. Usually if you want to get a player, you treat him as you would treat a stock. If somebody wants to buy your company’s stock, they’re going to run full research first. You invest in a player, and he is going to represent your team for years to come.
AO: What did the Oilers tell you?
IL: Tambellini told me: ‘We like him. We want him. But we’re going to make a decision the day before the draft’. I also know the Habs want to get one of my guys – either Nail or Alex [Galchenyuk]. So do the Leafs. It is possible that the Leafs are going to trade their draft pick and get both of them. There is a possibility like that. Nail and Alex went to New Jersey for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals. After this they met Leafs GM Brian Burke. Then Nail met with the Habs.
I look at the draft a little different. I look at the big picture. I don’t care when are they going to be picked. I want them to be picked by teams that play their kind of hockey. Because they have a bright future ahead of them. I want them to be in the right hands and in the right atmosphere. Whether it’s Columbus, Toronto or Islanders – it’s not important to me. The NHL is a very successful league, it’s doing well. I know these kids. I see how they work. I don’t see any problems for them. They’re going to be okay.