Nail Yakupov: An Oiler, even in Russia

The whole story is in these two Nail Yakupov tweets, really. A few days after Yakupov landed in Russia, he said in his own language ‘My beloved Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk’. Then he added a smiley face and an exclamation mark. Oh, Russians and their smiley faces…

Despite the Oilers assigning Yakupov back to Sarnia, the truth is that he’s going to spend at least some of this season in the KHL playing for his hometown team.

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‘We’re only going to sign one NHL player for the lockout – Nail Yakupov,’ Neftekhimik’s GM Rafik Yakubov (no confusion here whatsoever) told Sovetsky Sport. ‘He’s going to be in Russia this Monday. Our team is currently in Astana. We have to add Yakupov to our roster. It may take a whole day. It is possible that Yakupov will play for our team already this Wednesday in Nizhny Novgorod. It’s really hard to tell now. Let the guy fly over first and pass his medical.’

A few hours later it was reported that Yakupov successfully made the trip, discussed his contract details with the team and is about to sign the papers. Neftekhimik got 2 points on the road with a 3-2 victory in OT.

Now, just what sort of a team is this Neftekhimik? First thing you may want to know is that the team’s name translates as ‘Oil Chemist’. So it’s still okay to call Yakupov an Oiler. As for chemistry, it’s hard to tell with whom he’s going to be working on it in Nizhnekamsk. There are only so few names on his new team a North American fan would recognize.

One of them is surely a former Capitals draft pick Oskar Osala. Canucks fans may recognize a 28-year-old Belorussian defenseman Denis Grot – he was picked by Vancouver in 2002 55th overall. There’s also former Tampa Bay prospect Martin Cibak and former Blackhawks winger Pavel Vorobiev (drafted 11th overall in 2000). Defenseman Renat Mamashev played one season in the WHL for the Moose Jaw Warriors and his partner on the blue line, Andrei Plekhanov, played a few seasons in AHL and ECHL as a Blue Jackets prospect.

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If you follow international hockey, you may recognize Neftekhimik’s goalie Maxim Sokolov. 40-year-old veteran played for Team Russia at 6 World Championships, 2004 World Cup and 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy. 30-year-old center Petr Koukal played for Team Czech Republic at 2 World Championships, including the latest one in Stockholm and Helsinki. Also, defenseman Maxim Berezin was on a gold-medal winning Team Russia at the 2011 World Juniors in Buffalo, NY.

Neftekhimik plays in a small town of Nizhnekamsk, which is located in Tatarstan region of Russia. The team was always in the shadow of its ‘big brother’ – Ak Bars Kazan. The latter located in the capital city of the region and is much better off financially, which helped the team to win 2 consecutive Gagarin Cups in 2009 and 2010.

Last season Neftekhimik didn’t make the playoffs, but is currently tied for first place in the league with 14 points in six games.

Last week Neftekhimik lost their captain and arguably best player Maxim Pestushko to injury. 27-year-old right winger is projected to miss 20 games. That creates an opportunity for Yakupov to fill Pestushko’s spot and play some top-line minutes.

Even though, as of now, it’s hard to tell with precise what Yakupov’s ice-time is going to be, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if he’s going to be given a lot of it. Running on a low budget, Neftekhimik is forced to give their young players a decent chance to show what they’re capable of, which is something Yakupov needs the most now.

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You spent the entire summer thinking what Nail’s going to look like in pro hockey. Well, it appears you didn’t wait for nothing – he’s going to play in the best league in the world (hands down for the time being), wear a blue uniform and proudly call himself an Oiler. The only difference is the time difference. In case you wonder, it’s 10 hours.