After being picked first overall in 2012 by the Edmonton Oilers, Nail Yakupov didn’t live up to the expectation in his first four NHL seasons. In this translated interview, originally appearing on the Russian website Sport Express, Nail Yakupov declared that he asked for a trade, explained what teams were interested in him, and tried to explain his ties with the Oilers franchise.
* For the original Sport Express article by Igor Rabiner, click here.
– Do you think that Connor McDavid is really that great? He is labelled as the new Gretzky.
– I don’t know regarding Gretzky. But he’s a very good player, very talented, he can achieve a lot.
– You had a good start of the season. How high was the impact of having McDavid on your line?
– A lot of your game depends on your linemates, there’s nothing to hide about it. It is also important to enjoy the management’s trust, so that you get ice time and the chance to create scoring chances. It’s hard to achieve anything if you have no ice time, nor trust. I think with Connor we had a good mutual understanding, we knew where to go, we understood each other, we knew how to play together, and we did it well. They let us play, and we brought good results. Of course we needed some time to adapt. The guy was nervous too, I was feeling bad for him a bit at the start, thinking about what was happening around him, but that’s a normal thing. When he scored his first goal, he started getting more and more confidence. I started understanding the way he plays, and he understood me. We talked one another on the bench, tried to talk a lot, and everything was even better. We played and enjoyed the game.
– Did you talk a lot with him off the ice?
– I wouldn’t say so. His roommate is Taylor Hall, and he befriended some guys two or three years younger than me. I talk with him just as the other guys in the team, not more.
– Do your circle of friends include Russian players with whom you played in the juniors? I’ve heard that you’re a close friend of Nikita Nesterov, Nikita Kucherov, Mikhail Grigorenko.
– Yes, it does. Nesterov and I play in different conferences, but when we play against each other we go out for a dinner. I have good ties with Vladimir Tarasenko too, just as with Artem Anisimov, with [Evgeny] Kuznetsov, with the guys from Columbus…
– Do you feel some white envy toward Tarasenko, Kuznetsov, Kucherov, who are doing great in the NHL?
– Yes, a bit, but only white envy. The guys are playing great, scoring points, and it’s very pleasant. And their teams always get the playoffs. Of course I’d like to have the same. At this point it’s not possible to compare where they play and where I play. The only thing I can do is to watch their highlights. And work hard hoping that I’ll get to their level.
– Do you think you’re doing something not correctly to get to their level or is there anything else? Maybe you weren’t lucky with your organization?
– I’m not blaming myself for anything. Of course, the right thing to say is that one should analyze himself to find what’s not working. And I’m doing it. But my conscience is 100% clean. I have never taken shortcuts, I always listened to the coach, and executed the game plan. When your hands are tied, it’s hard to achieve anything. I am not giving attention to rumors; I’ll act professionally from the first to the last game, and I’ll do anything that it’s up to me. My ties with hockey didn’t change. It’s the only thing I have in my live, my beloved job. Sometimes you have harsh times, it’s like that for everyone. It’s life. I wasn’t truly ready for this, everything was good at first, but I think that it’s not correct to point the finger on one single player when a team doesn’t get to the playoffs for ten years. I think there are other reasons, not less important.
– Did you count on a different consideration as a past first overall pick?
– I don’t have anything to moan about regarding the first part of my NHL career. I was well accepted, by the team, by the club, by the city. The guys helped me a lot with English, for this I also have to thank a lot Nikolai Khabibulin, who was in the team at those times. And I had the trust of the coaches. I was simply enjoying the game a lot. We almost reached the playoffs during my first year. I wasn’t thinking that I was very important just because I was drafted first overall. Playing in the NHL, being in the same locker room with players who played in many playoffs and won the Stanley Cup was an honor for me. Everything was truly interesting to me. I tried to be a good kid, the way I was raised by my parents. And then everything changed.
– At the second season’s start. I wasn’t iced for the third game. Time started flying. Of course there were many good moments, but everything could have been better, much better. I am not angry, I don’t regret anything, I understand that millions of people live worse than me. I try to do what I can do, I work and hope for the best.
– Is it correct to say that with your first coach in the NHL, Ralph Krueger, all was good, but then you couldn’t find a common language with Dallas Eakins?
– I am not going into details, but I think that everything was clear even from outside. The way it was before and after.
– In the offseason the Oilers changed their management. Did you think everything would change under Peter Chiarelli? Was that the reason why you signed a new contract with the Oilers?
– I signed a new contract right after the season end, it was before Chiarelli got to the team. We knew that there would be some changes, but the point wasn’t that. I was in good mood, I think I played well in the last part of the last season. And thus I made up my mind: if they’re offering me a contract, it means that they are counting on me.
– What are your ties with your coach Todd McLellan? He was expected to play offensive, combination hockey, just what it suits you best.
– We have normal ties. He coaches, and I do my job. A coach doesn’t choose his players. There was nothing special, I’m trying doing what I am asked to. We didn’t have any conflict. I know McLellan’s assistant, Jay Woodcroft, since my childhood, when he got to my home town in Russia, Nizhnekamsk, for Pavel Datsyuk’s master classes.
– Did this help you with the new staff?
– How could this help? You can know a man for a billion years, but he is still not your father. You’re getting asked the same as other players. Sometimes we have a dinner together and we remember those times, but it doesn’t have any influence on my job.
– You said: “I was waiting for a trade ’till the end”.
– It’s true.
– When did you get to the point that you needed a trade? Did you really think that they would move you?
– Yes, I did. And as much as I know, everything went pretty close to completion. I was already with suitcases in hands. Moreover, the club allowed me and Igor Larionov to talk with other teams. Many teams were interested, but in the end something went wrong. And I am [still] here.
– It was rumored that Montreal, Winnipeg, New Jersey, and Carolina were interested in you. What team was closer? And what was your favorite option?
– This list is far from being complete. You could add another two or three teams. I can say whatever I want regarding the team that went closer to complete a trade or my favorite option, but the fact is that something went wrong and I am still in Edmonton. Now the season is finishing, then there will be the playoffs and we’ll see this summer. There will be much more time, no deadlines, therefore completing a trade will be easier. But in the end, everything is up on the Oilers.
– Did you ask for a trade yourself?
– Yes, I did. But not in person – my job is playing hockey – through my agent, who deals with such things. But since there were rumors about a trade, you can see that it was true.
– What did Larionov advise you?
– He told me to keep on playing. To live the usual hockey life. Everyone should do his job. I tried working hard, practicing hard, enjoying hockey. Discuss trades is not my job and I should not get involved in this.
– Did you think about getting back to the KHL?
– No, I did not. Once again, no, I did not.
– CSKA Moscow traded for your KHL rights with Neftekhimik.
– Yes, I heard about it. I don’t have a problem with my home club [Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk]. They understand that I’m not getting back to Russia soon, therefore I think they got some good players for my rights. The most important thing is that Neftekhimik was satisfied [about the trade]. We have good ties, I know everyone there, we still talk when I get back home. All is good.
– Where do you plan to spend the summer, a part getting back home?
– I will visit England. I like football and I am a Chelsea fan. Yesterday I was told some interesting stories about the team and [former head coach] Jose Mourinho. I really want to attend a Chelsea game at their home stadium Stamford Bridge once the season is over. I never went there and I really want to see a game with my own eyes.
– Did you talk with [Team Russia head coach] Oleg Znarok regarding the IIHF WC in Moscow? The Oilers are out of the playoffs.
– No one called me and I didn’t meet anyone.
– Will you play if you’ll be invited?
– Yes, I will.
– Even if you won’t be guaranteed of a spot in the final roster?
– If I’ll be called to the national team, I’m not going to do any claim.
– You skated in Russian ref Evgeny Romasko’s first NHL game. What were your impressions?
– It was great! I was sincerely glad for him. He became a part of history and I was there too. I seen that he was very worried. It was evident that he was very serious, pretty much like refs act [in Russia]. Here [in the NHL] refs are more relaxed. In the NHL everything is different. [In Russia] all is very strict, refs try to look good and skate well. Here, instead, they talk with you during the game, smile, and so on. Romasko was very focused, it was easy to see how important this game was for him. And he was very good. There were some moments, where he, with his English, managed to talk on the microphone and explain the penalty to the whole arena. He talked with an accent, but everyone understood him. We met after the game. We didn’t know each other before, but my father did, and we had some common friends. It was very good for him. I hoped to see him again this season, but I did not so far, unfortunately.
– What would you change in your life if you could?
– Nothing. I am a maximalist, I live today and I go ahead by it. My goal is that I feel good today and tomorrow. I don’t like watching behind my back. You can’t change the past, so I’m not going to waste energy thinking about it. Life works that way, there is the “here and now”, and you can’t change what happened five or ten years ago. If you don’t show results, they’re gonna get another player. Of course there is some nostalgia, but only when I talk with my friends. But saying “yes, it should have been…” or “it would be better if…” It makes no sense.
– Do you still think that you’ll become an NHL star? Even if you passed through a lot of things, you’re still 22.
– Yes, I’m still young. Everything is yet to come. The most important thing will be to end up where I will get trusted. Where I’ll get the chances that here I didn’t get. I want to play and enjoy hockey. I look to the future with good intentions.
– Can you think, at least for a minute, that this will happen in Edmonton?
– No, I think it is to be excluded.
A professional hockey writer and translator. Loves Russian culture, language, and hockey. Reachable on twitter @AlexSerenRosso