After failing to live up to the expectations in Edmonton, former first overall pick Nail Yakupov had another bad season with the St. Louis Blues. This summer, the Russian signed with the Colorado Avalanche and is ready to write a new page in his story. In this translated interview, originally appearing on the popular Russian website Sport-Express, Yakupov talks about the preseason, his move to the Avs, and Jaromir Jagr’s possible move to his home team in the KHL, Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk.
* You can enjoy the original article in the Russian language by Mikhail Zislis here *
New Life in Denver
Mikhail Zislis: In your first game with your new team against the Dallas Stars, you had three assists. Life is good now?
Nail Yakupov: It’s just a preseason game. Our opponent didn’t have most of their top players, and our team had many juniors too. But I like the way our team played, with an emphasis on the offensive side. Defensemen didn’t want to hold the puck and gave it to the forwards right away. We played fast and managed to score many goals. [Semyon] Varlamov played very well in the crease. It’s early to jump to conclusions, but of course, such a good game helps psychologically.
MZ: Did you greet your former coach Ken Hitchcock?
NY: No, I haven’t met him. I only think about my game, and probably he didn’t notice me.
MZ: In the preseason games the refereeing seems to be very different and many players aren’t happy.
NY: We’ve got new rules regarding faceoffs, where players should be placed, these things. And there will be even more penalties for slashing. There were even some laughable moments, but if we have more powerplays, then why not? I like it. Maybe something will change in the regular season. But this is not our problem now, with our fast game we forced Dallas to take many penalties.
MZ: Last year the Avalanche were last in the standings.
NY: I’m a new player here. In the offseason, I reset my mind and removed all the negativity. It’s always easy to start from scratch than to continue from old things. I’m not on panic.
MZ: Do you think the Avalanche can move out from the bottom places of the standings?
NY: In the NHL this kind of turnaround isn’t strange. Remember, Toronto was the worst team in the league, and last year they made the playoffs. Also, Edmonton was very bad and then improved. Sometimes it happens that the reigning Stanley Cup champions don’t get to the playoffs, as it was with Los Angeles.
MZ: Who skates faster? Your former teammate Connor McDavid or your new partner Nathan MacKinnon?
NY: Hard to say right away. They are both great in this aspect and even similar. McDavid probably has faster feet, while MacKinnon is stronger on his skates and has a better technique. Nathan is incredible. But if I have a chance, I’ll try to compete with him.
Forgetting About the Past
MZ: Last year, when you were not playing, didn’t you think about going home?
NY: I had a lot of thoughts in that period. Of course, you don’t want to hit the ice only during practices. You want to change everything, even your sticks and skates. You think that you need to change something, maybe to practice more, or less, and similar things. I don’t like to blame other people and I take all the responsibility for my failures. I was very nervous, but then with time, I understood that I needed to have a more quiet approach. Life gives you harder challenges than misfortune in sports. If you get a chance then you’ll play, otherwise, you need to practice harder and watch the games from the stands. In any case, I gained experience.
MZ: Don’t you think after five years that being picked first overall kind of thwarted your career? Maybe if you got into another organization, then you could have different chances.
NY: We could spend a lot of time talking about this. But what sense would it make now? If anyone was given the chance to change something in their past, then I’m sure that anyone would make at least one change. I can’t say that everything went in an ideal way regarding my hockey career, but I’m still young, alive and well. The same for my parents. Every morning I get up in a good mood and I start practicing. Why should I think about the past?
MZ: Do you already know with whom you will start the season?
NY: Since the first day we have had three main lines. We practice this way: I play with Matt Duchene and the rookie Alex Kerfoot, who played in the NCAA until last year. It’s a good thing, we have time to develop some chemistry
MZ: Did you have other teams seeking you other than the Avs?
NY: I discussed all the matters regarding my new team with my family. Even if I let everyone know that I wanted to play in the NHL. I will always have time to get back to Russia. It was good to know that Colorado was interested in me, and they called me. I decided to accept their offer pretty much right away. I’m still young and I need to keep on seeking the chance to play in the NHL.
MZ: It’s been rumoured that Vegas was interested in you too.
NY: Better to ask my agent. I know that there were other teams but I am not sure at what stages the negotiations were.
NY: SKA offered me a contract, and my agent had a meeting with them. I thank them for the offer but they know that I was more keen on pursuing an NHL contract.
MZ: Did you talk with Grigorenko before signing?
NY: Not really, I know a lot about the Avalanche as we played against them like five times a year. Every time I got to Denver, then I’d talk with Semyon Varlamov. Yes, of course, I met Grigorenko also many times. Now Varly is helping me a lot with day-to-day stuff.
MZ: Where did you settle down?
NY: I rent a place in one of the upper districts in Denver, not far from other players with whom I often spend time with, Rantanen, Andrighetto, Barberio.
MZ: What about Zadorov and Mironov?
NY: Zadorov just recently got back to the city, but of course we spend a lot of time together. Mironov, for now, lives at a hotel, just like other players who aren’t sure where they will spend the season.
MZ: What do you think about the rumours tying Jaromir Jagr to your former team Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk?
NY: I know my father like no one else [Note: Yakupov’s father is the GM of Neftekhimik Nizhmekamsk] and I know that he doesn’t joke about this kind of thing. They can find the money to sign Jagr, so it is really up to the player himself. It would be fantastic if Jagr signed with Neftekhimik!
MZ: I have been told that it’s hard to play in Denver due to the different air pressure.
NY: I was really surprised about it. At the start, after the first couple of shifts during the practice, I was without any force. There is just one way to get out of it: drink a lot of water and spend a lot of time outside so that your body can adapt.