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‘I never learned how to play:’ Nail Yakupov opens up on time with Edmonton Oilers, pressure as first overall pick

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Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Woz
By Woz
5 months ago
It’s been many moons since the days of Nail Yakupov as an Edmonton Oiler. While both the organization and the former first-overall pick have moved on, the Dropping The Gloves podcast with John Scott brought him on as a guest recently to talk about his time in Edmonton.
Yakupov talked about the pressure that came with being the first overall pick, why things didn’t work out in Edmonton and dismissed what Brian Burke has previously said about his draft interview with the Toronto Maple Leafs — one that saw Burke call Yakupov one of the worst interviews he ever had.
After the Oilers drafted him first overall in 2012, he jumped right into the NHL and while he played just four seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, he played under four different coaches: Ralph Kreuger, Dallas Eakins, Todd Nelson, and Todd McLellan. The general manager who selected him was Steve Tambellini, while most of his development was under Craig MacTavish. Ultimately, it was Peter Chiarelli who traded him. 
Yakupov had a strong rookie season for the Oilers scoring 17 goals and 31 points in 48 games during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, but struggled — especially early — in his second season.
“I don’t want to blame coaches and GM, I don’t want to say that. But I have a couple of coaches that I didn’t like to be honest… I think the big bomb, in the second year, I think the second or third game I got healthy scratched against Toronto. So we played home against Winnipeg, I remember that moment. In our zone faceoff, I was taking a bad lane against Trouba, They scored a goal after that I got benched. We went to Toronto and I got healthy scratched.”
For Yakupov this was the ultimate gut punch.
“I felt like someone just took something inside Nail and just like threw it somewhere. I was so empty man. It was unbelievable, that was the moment you should try not to let those things down but I was down, It was so bad after that I couldn’t breathe, I was shocked that I lost everything, I lost energy, I lost momentum, I was nervous, I lost control basically.”
After that, he spoke with his agent about requesting a trade right away but at the time that request never materialized. Yakupov did touch on his relationship with Eakins and his experience with the former Oilers coach.
“Since that, my relationship with Dallas Eakins was over. Not because of me, he just didn’t like me. I don’t know. He told me that, ‘defence, defence, defence.’ I don’t want to be wrong, he was screaming at me, he was asking ‘Why you did do this, why are you not doing this’ but he wasn’t teaching.”
He felt that Eakins was singling him out and never taught him how to play.
“I never learned how to play, he basically never teached me. That guy was just weird, I don’t know.”
From there, Yakupov remained in Edmonton for two more seasons seeing a strong stretch near the end of the 2015-16 season after the club brought in Derek Roy, who played alongside him. The Oilers traded him that offseason to the St. Louis Blues for a mid-round draft pick, and Yakupov was out of the NHL two years later.
When asked about talking with the players in Edmonton at the time Yakupov admits he was shy because of his English and the language barrier. His shyness would make it difficult for him to get close with his teammates. The respect was there with them, he tried his best to talk but remained a challenge — even with fellow countryman Nikolai Khabibulin. Yakupov didn’t start speaking with him until the final 10 games of that shortened 2013 season.
Eventually, they would become friends and hang out but there was one character on the Oilers that Yakupov valued the most.
“Darcy Hordichuk, that guy’s a beauty. That guy gave me life man. He picked me up every day from the Sutton Place, I was driving with him and that’s how I started talking a little bit and I didn’t feel shy.
“I got really involved with Darcy, he’s such a beauty man, he helped me a lot, like he drove me everywhere, he was buying me food, he went shopping with me, buying me some shoes. He was kinda my daddy.”
He went on about how much Hordichuk meant to him, how he helped his family and how he ran into him seven years later when Yakupov was a part of the Colorado Avalanche. The way he spoke about Darcy Hordichuk was joyous.
Another member of the Oilers who had a positive impact on Yakupov was Ralph Krueger. He went on to talk about how he was a good human being, how he tried to teach him the little things, and pushed him forward. Krueger was more than a coach to Yakupov, who liked how patient he was with him at the time.
Speaking of coaches, Nail Yakupov says that the best coach he’s had during his hockey career was Bob Hartley with Omsk Avangard of the KHL and believes if he had Hartley earlier in his career, things could’ve panned out differently for him. Hartley helped shape his game and mind and feels the way he thinks now could’ve changed his trajectory as a professional hockey player.
Mentally, Yakupov said he is a different person today than he was when drafted by the Oilers, and spoke on how the pressure impacted him when he was younger. The pressure of being a first overall pick got to him, and feels if he had gone later in the draft, he wouldn’t have felt it as much and less pressure.
“Anywhere I go I was down, I was shocked, I was surprised. It was a lot of pressure, sometimes I just wanted to cry, I don’t know.
“It was like interviews, this and that and I was just trying to keep my smile up that I’m excited but I just had no idea where I’m going. It was so tough, for me it was tough. I lost that battle, really lost that battle with my head, with my mind, I think I wasn’t ready for that.”
Lastly, Yakupov spoke about Brian Burke’s comments about his draft interview in which Burke alleged the player and a scout nearly fought, and that Yakupov was “defiant, obnoxious, and sullen.”
“Actually, I had some really good meetings with Toronto, I’m sorry I couldn’t remember their names. Meetings with Toronto were always with a big group of guys, and I remember we went to a restaurant once and I don’t think Brian Burke was there. I did everything I could to speak properly. I was good, I wasn’t a pain in the ass or I wasn’t a bad guy, I didn’t say something bad.” 
He doesn’t recollect a bad interview with the Maple Leafs and Brian Burke but rather he felt he was scared in the moment.
“Probably I was scared and I had such a big pressure at that time and I just wanted to go home, in my mind I wanted to go home. My English wasn’t good, I didn’t have a lot of English words to say or pronounce.”
In Yakupov’s opinion, Brian Burke was wrong, and was surprised to hear that from Burke.
You can hear more from Yakupov and his time in the NHL, the pressures he felt mentally, and more on the Dropping the Gloves Podcast with John Scott.

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