After the jump, Andrey Osadchenko conducts a feature interview with Nail Yakupov – and it’s well worth reading. Yakupov talks about his adjustment to the NHL, the things that matter to him at this level, why he likes playing in Edmonton, and his opinion of the Oilers’ coaching staff. JW.
Osadchenko: You are now a full-time NHL player. You scored 8 points in first 10 games and now have 11 points in 18 games. Is the NHL exactly what you expected it to be or is it different somehow?
Yakupov: I didn’t have any expectations, to be honest. The time flies by very quickly. When I was a kid I couldn’t even dream of being in the NHL and now I have played over 10 games there. I play hockey and I’m having lots of fun. I feel very comfortable around my teammates. I am now just one of the guys on the team, nothing special. I like our team, our city and the atmosphere overall. I like winning, scoring points and helping my team in any way I can. I try to work hard and my coach trusts me.
AO: What was your ‘Welcome to the NHL’ moment? For instance, Alex Burmistrov of the Winnipeg Jets once said that he felt ‘welcomed’ to the league when he was crushed into the boards behind the net really hard for the first time.
NY: Honestly, I felt that I was playing in the NHL from day one. True, I was still a little shook up during the warm-up. I was in awe, you know? (smiling) I was looking at my team, I was looking at the Canucks, I was looking at NHL logos all around the rink and I understood I was playing in the NHL. I was flying in the skies as they say. But I did understand that it was the NHL. And when the ref dropped the puck I told myself ‘Well, this is it. This is my first minute in the NHL’. And off I went.
AO: You are a very ambitious guy. Did you set a goal for yourself – to score in your first NHL shift?
NY: No, that wasn’t my goal. I mean, it’s not like I was working myself up focusing on that. It was’t like I was going to go back to the locker-room and sulk if I didn’t score. In your first NHL game you have to get used to the way the game is played over there. You have adjust to the way the guys play, what they do, where they skate… that took some time. Believe me, if I had a chance to score, I would have. I mean, I scored some goals eventually, right? For now my goal is to keep working hard. Given an opportunity, I will score, I will pass and I will do anything for my team. We need points badly. I want my team to win. I think, it’s more important than my personal stats.
AO: What was the greatest advice you were given before your first career NHL game?
NY: Well, there was just one advice, really. It came from my teammates and coach. And it was the best possible advice ever. They all came up to me, shook my hand, smiled and said ‘Have fun out there. Have fun from the fact you’re playing in the NHL – the best league in the world. Have fun from playing with your teammates and have fun playing against your opponents’.
I think these are the words that I needed the most. They helped me big time. I took them to the heart and I actually felt much better out there. Just like with any other job – if you love what you’re doing, it’s much easier to get the job done. If you love hockey, it’s easier to play hockey. And if you approach the game with a ‘ugh-that’s-my-job-I-need-to-work-so-I-would-have-the-money’ attitude, everything is going to be very different. I mean, of course, we’re being paid for playing hockey. But it’s much better to enjoy playing hockey, help your team and have fun. Plus, you’re being paid to do that. It’s not a bad deal (laughs).
AO: Earlier this season you managed to score two almost identical goals on the Kings and Coyotes, swatting the puck in out of mid-air. Is it something you work on at practices?
NY: Well, we do have a table tennis set up in our locker-room. We play it every day. Perhaps, I learned something from there? (laughs) I don’t know, really. It just sort of happened. I just really wanted to score so I skated in the slot, because, basically, that’s where the most goals come from. And then I just calculated the trajectory of the puck and scored.
AO: However, it’s not that easy to swing at the puck like that. Have you always had this terrific hand-eye corrdination?
NY: I wouldn’t say that I work specifically on that at practices. Although, I do skate into the slot after every shot and try hard to score any way I can. You just have to really want it.
AO: Tomas Holmstrom used to stand against the half-boards during warm-ups and practice deflections. Do you have any specific drill you like to do during warm-ups?
NY: We do a lot of drills. For instance, I prefer shooting drills. I shoot while standing, while skating – you name it. I try to shoot during games, too. And I do shoot in every game. (laughs)
AO: This season quite a few players who didn’t play hockey during the lockout got injured. Do you feel like playing for Neftekhimik in the KHL gave you a good game-form, which allowed you to getting injuried?
NY: Absolutely. The part of the season that I spent in Nizhnekamsk helped me a lot. First of all, I played in my hometown, which made everything much easier for me. Second of all, the coaching staff trusted me with ice-time so I played a lot. Besides, I also got to play for junior Team Russia. I had a lot of pro and junior games. All of it really helped me to get adjusted to hockey over here. As for getting injured, you have to understand one thing – this is a short season and the schedule is really tight. Usually we play two games in three nights. Some guys can’t recover fast enough – hence the injuries. Certainly, guys who didn’t play hockey during the lockout sometimes may not be ready for it.
AO: The tight schedule must created more problems for you than for some other teams. Even in Nizhnekamsk you didn’t have to fly so much.
NY: Hey, it would be a crime not to fly on our plane. (smiles) It really comfortable. There’s everything on board – food, drinks, chargers, Wi-Fi… If you’re up in the air and you have nothing to do, a two-hour flight may be challenging. But when you have stuff to do, the time flies by. The guys on the team like to joke around, so I never get bored.
AO: Who’s the biggest jokester on your team?
NY: I’d say it’s Eric Belanger. He’s from Quebec. He really cracks me up. He’s got quite a few years under his belt, but I’m telling you – his jokes are the best! You just gotta love him! He’s telling all sorts of stories, does impressions and so on. I love it.
AO: First overall or not – you’re still just a rookie on the team. Somebody must have pulled a prank on you. Give it up – did they cut your shoelaces? Did they hide your stick in the washroom?
NY: (laughs) No, no, no! Nothing like that so far. You know, when I look at my teammates, I can’t even think of one guy who would do something like that. I mean, do something behind your back. They’ve all been nothing but helpful to me since day one. They were always there for me, talking to me, helping me out… this helps to feel yourself as part of the team. I haven’t seen anybody on our team pulling a prank on anybody. Besides, it depends on what kind of a guy you are. If you’re a good guy, this ain’t going to happen to you. But if you’re going to be cocky, there are going to be pranks pulled on you and so on. We’re a good team, every guy on our team is a good guy. And then again – we have so many games! Cutting someone’s shoelaces? Forget about it! There’s no time for it! After practices the only thing on your mind is to get something to eat and get some rest. There’s no time for pranks.
AO: Being a rookie you get lots of powerplay ice-time, which is really important because that’s where you score most of the points. Is it something you expected this past summer?
NY: This past summer I had no idea what to expect. Although, I did talk to the coach about that at the rookie camp. He told me back then that he is counting on me on the powerplay and he’s going to give me ice-time for it. He told me ‘To be honest with you, I’ve never seen such a powerful shot off the rush’. (smiles) That made me feel great! I mean, I was shocked! So, I’m getting some time on the powerplay now. First two games everything worked for me. Now it’s much more difficult. NHL coaches aren’t dumb, you see. They analyze the way you play and come up with counter measures. So now they get in my passing and shooting lanes and it’s a much harder for me to fire it on net. I still shoot it, though, if there’s a chance.
AO: This is hardly new for you, though. People played tight against you in the OHL, the Subway Super Series, the World Juniors and even in the KHL. Does it push you towards being a better player?
NY: I like it. That means you’re a menace. That means you can make the other team pay by either scoring a goal or setting up a play. Your opponents look at you and try to come up with something to keep you off the scoreboard. This makes me feel great. That means I’m worth something. That means, I’ve done something. It doesn’t bother me at all. Besides, it’s not like there’s a guy who skates behind me all the time or something like that. There are a lot of talented guys on our team who can stir things up in every shift. You can’t just shut them all down. You can’t keep an eye on all of them during an entire game. There will be mistakes. And they will get a couple of goals. Most of our games are decided by a single mistake. Whoever makes one mistake less – wins the game.
AO: In your first 10 games you scored eight points and were tied for first in goal-scoring among rookies for sometime with five markers. Were you happy about that or in the back of your mind you still craved for a little more than that?
NY: I don’t even think about that. I can only thank God that I’m able to score. It would be a sin for me to complain. Everything’s great. I just want to keep improving. I want to practice more and play better. I want to help my team win by working hard, scoring goals and getting assists. I don’t this to be my limit. I want to win the Stanley Cup.
AO: Do you have a bet with your fellow Russian rookie Vladimir Tarasenko on who’s going to win the Calder Trophy this season?
NY: I hardly know him, actually. I’ve seen him maybe 3 times in real life. So we don’t really talk to each other.
AO: Would the games against the Blues mean something extra to you?
NY: Oh, it’s going to be a rivalry! (laughs) I mean, for us every game is a rivalry. Just like I said we win and lose games by one or two goals tops and we really need points.
AO: Some people disregard ‘plus-minus’ stat completely. Others – not so much. You are a minus-nine in 19 games. Why?
NY: You’re right. Some think it’s important, some think it’s not. I don’t think about it too much. It’s bad when you’re the reason your team concedes a goal. It’s bad when it was your mistake that led to a goal or you had a bad shift overall. That concerns me, yes. Everybody makes mistakes so I’m not worried too much about my plus-minus. I just want our team to get points and make it to the playoffs. This is what’s important to me. After every game we watch videos. If I made a mistake somewhere, the coach points it out to me. It’s not like he says ‘Hey, you! You are a minus-6! And you are a minus-7!’. It doesn’t work like that.
AO: In the summer you said you liked Edmonton. You took local fans by surprise. They’re not used to hearing this. Why did you like it?
NY: (laughs) You have to understand – there are no skyscrapers in Nizhnekamsk. There are no high-rise office buildings with 50 stories. So when you live in downtown on the 30th floor and you get to see these buildings… I don’t know. I just like it. True, comparing to other NHL cities Edmonton may be small. But I am also from a small town of Nizhnekamsk. I like towns like this – small and quiet. I don’t want anything else! Some people like the lights of big city, but I’m not one of them. I like it when it’s quiet. I like it when nobody’s in any rush.
AO: Fans jokingly said you’re going to change your mind about Edmonton when the winter comes. Well, it is winter. Do you still like it?
NY: Look, the winter in Nizhnekamsk is three times colder than in Edmonton. And even if it was the other way around, it wouldn’t scare me. I have warm clothes and my parents taught me when I was a kid how to stay warm. So wherever I go I don’t feel cold.
AO: Do you know that you offended some media members by not talking to them during the World Juniors in Ufa? There were some who questioned if you should be given a spot on the Oilers roster or simply traded away.
NY: I wish I knew who wrote that. (smiles) Actually, I gave a lot of interviews right before the World Juniors. My face was on every website out there. It was me, myself and I. People have to understand that I’m not the only guy on the team – there are 20 other guys who can also tell you interesting things about the team. That’s one thing. The other thing is that it was my last World Championship on the junior level. I wanted to focus on hockey. I didn’t want to be distracted.
I’m not going to lie to you – it’s a pleasure to talk to some journalists and it’s quite a displeasure to talk to the other. Even Russian reporters, who you’d think would be supportive, tend to focus on the negative. ‘Who was clubbing on your team? Where did they go at night? Could you tell us their names?’ I mean, why would I ever want to talk to you again after these questions, right? I told our media relations officer that I wanted to focus on the tourney and I didn’t want to be distracted.
However, the World Juniors are over. It’s all in the past now. It’s all different in the NHL. The NHL is the ultimate hockey league. There’s no better league out there for you to play in. I knew this myself but I was told when I came here too that the media is going to be around everyday. They come into our locker-room and we talk to them for hours. It’s different. You get to know people better because you work with them everyday. You get to know who does what for whom. They know what to ask. They don’t try to provoke you. It’s more interesting to talk to media in this fashion.
AO: There was a meeting between reporters and hockey players in Moscow a few weeks ago. They discussed why players don’t like to talk to the media. If only you were there…
NY: Look, there are some reporters out there you can talk to everyday. They’re fine. But there are some who only looking for dirt. Their goal is to dig up a little thing and make a big deal out of nothing. Why? Who needs that? What shocks me – often it’s Russian reporters who look to dig up some dirt on Team Russia. I would understand if a Canadian reporter would do that. But a Russian? I don’t get it.
AO: Russian players of your generation want to play against the Red Wings, since they grew up watching the Russian Five. Is it something you can relate to?
NY: Not quite. I have the same sentiment about the Dallas Stars. You’ve a picture of me and Jagr when I was a kid, right? I was coming back from a morning skate and remembered I had this picture. I was just a kid back then and Jagr was in town with Avangard to play Neftekhimik. I’m surprised he played at the rink. It was an old rink and it was really cold! (laughs) Anyway, he played there, and now I get to play against him here! So many years have gone by… I was shocked when I got to play against him. Moreover, I was standing next to him on the face-off. I was on the right wing and he was on the left. I remember standing there just going ‘Holy smokes!’.
I have special feelings for the Red Wings, too. When I played in Sarnia every next weeekend I’d go to Detroit to catch an NHL game. Visa wasn’t an issue and it’s like a one-hour drive from Sarnia. I watched a lot of games there. I was even there when they played the Oilers! Now I have played at the rink myself. I think it’s pretty cool.
AO: Could you tell a little more about this picture with Jagr? Where was it taken exactly?
NY: Right after their morning skate. I just came back from school. My dad called and said ‘Get to the rink ASAP. You’re taking a picture with Jagr’. I told him ‘So Jagr… whatever. Why do I need to take a picture with him?’. My dad goes ‘Are you dumb? Get changed and go to the rink’. I go ‘Why? My practice is in 5 hours!’. Dad said ‘I’m telling you to come here this instant’. So I grabbed my stuff and went over there. I met my dad and he told me ‘Right. Jagr is on his way. You’re going to take a picture with him. And put on your equipment!’. I told him ‘Why would I put it on? I don’t want to take a picture with him! The practice is 4 hours away!’. In the end, he made me put it on. I took a picture and went back to change. The next day I saw him play and he played great. It dawned on me that I did the right thing taking a picture with him. All in all, I didn’t want to take a picture with him at first. Jagr… whatever. What about him, right? (laughs)
AO: You should taken another picture with him. You know, sort of a ‘before’ and ‘after’.
NY: I wanted to do that after the first game but my plate was full at the moment. He scored a goal and was really happy and I… well, let’s just say I wasn’t exactly in the mood.
AO: Do you think a shortened season gives the Oilers any advantages or disadvantages?
NY: Tell you what, full season or not, you get just two points for a win and one point for a loss in overtime. So the gap between the teams is always tight. Only if you would lose like 10 or 20 games in a row. I can tell you that every guy on our team loves playing hockey. I haven’t heard a single guy complaining about how difficult the schedule is and whatnot. Nobody is crying over it. Although, I wish we had all the injured guys back and healthy as soon as possible. I want our team to win more often and make it to the playoffs. If we can stay healthy, we’re a very good team. We can beat any team in the league. Besides, we have got an excellent coach. He’s great not only as a coach but on a personal level too. I have never met a coach like him. He’s always there for us. You want to go out there and win games just because of him.