On Wedensday, Nail Yakupov and an underpowered Neftekhimik Nizhekamsk team took on a star-studded St. Petersburg roster that includes 13 players with NHL experience (including ex-Oilers Patrick Thoresen, Denis Grebshkov and Alexei Semenov) as well as star prospect Vladimir Tarasenko.
Neftekhimik won 3-2 in the shootout. Nail Yakupov scored both regulation goals, and tallied twice more in the shootout (including scoring the game winner). After the jump, my impression of his first game back in the KHL after an IIHF-enforced suspension.
First, a disclaimer: I only realized an online feed was available in time to watch the very end of the second, start of the third, the overtime and the shootout. So, this is really a scouting report based on a fraction of one game.
With that said, Yakupov was on the ice all the time and he was excellent. He didn’t have a perfect game (more on that in a moment) but he flashed a lot of the same skills that earned him his first overall at the NHL Draft this past summer.
One thing I was impressed with was his calm under pressure in his own zone. Twice in the third period, Neftekhimik got into trouble in their own end with Yakupov on the ice, and both times he made smart plays. In the first instance, he skated the puck out of danger and then passed it to a defenceman with time and space; said defenceman promptly iced the puck. The second time, Yakupov retrieved the puck, skated it to the corner, and took a pretty decent hit to make a pass to a defenceman in the clear. That defenceman promptly iced the puck as well. (At this point, the reader may be seeing a pattern: Neftekhimik’s defence iced the puck four consecutive times before Igor Polygalov finally skated it to center.)
A later play in the defensive zone also turned bad, again not through any fault of Yakupov’s. The Neftekhimik defender retrieved the puck in the right corner and Yakupov went to the boards to give him an outlet as an SKA forechecker barreled in. The defenceman either didn’t see Yakupov or panicked, and threw the puck up the middle, where it was intercepted by the opposition. Yakupov immediately went to the slot to try and put pressure on the shooter, but couldn’t quite get there before a high-end scoring chance ensued (Neftekhimik’s 40-year old goaltender, Maxim Sokolov, made a great save and held his team in the game for much of the third).
Yakupov’s best work may have been on the power play. He was consistently in good position to support the puck carrier and establish an offensive zone cycle; when he got the puck his passes were quick, accurate and intelligent. It stood out on a team that seemed well out of sync on the man advantage. His shot, which might be the most impressive weapon at his disposal, was lethal – he’s a pure finisher, and that contributed to his two goals.
Yakupov also showed strength gaining the opposition zone – on both the power play and at even-strength he moved the puck up ice quickly and avoided danger. I’m not sure he’s quite the puck-rusher that Taylor Hall is, but he didn’t look far from it yesterday.
As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t all good. On one play, Yakupov found himself on the defensive, along with three teammates. The two defencemen were inside their own zone, while Yakupov held the right side of the blue line and his compatriot took the far side. The opposition puck carrier came in along the right side, and Yakupov put in a beer-league level stick check and quickly found himself out of the play as the opposition player effortlessly skated around it.
On another play, Yakupov threw a hit along the right wing boards in his own end of the ice. He was protecting the puck and stepped into an opposition player trying to take it; it was a rather nice shoulder check up until the last second, where Yakupov’s stick came up on the play, clipping the other guy in the face. It was a moment of carelessness that put SKA on the power play in the third period of a tie game, and could have cost Neftekhimik the contest.
In the shootout, Yakupov went with the same basic move on all four of his attempts – a long slow skate in on the goalie, followed by a pinpoint shot. The first two times, he was turned aside by Sergei Bobrovsky, but on his latter two attempts he was able to pick the five hole both times (Incidentally, if you ever find yourself on a breakaway against Sergei Bobrovsky, go five hole – he was excellent otherwise but allowed two of three goals and another shot off the post to go between his legs). The latter shot stood up as the winner.
All in all, it was an awfully impressive showing for the Oilers’ prospect.