Nail Yakupov's star is on the rise

Updated: July 18, 2011, 1:22 PM ET
By Gare Joyce

Put simply, if the 2012 draft were held tomorrow, Nail Yakupov would go first overall. And there's a good shot that if he had been eligible for the 2011 draft (his birthday fell only a few weeks after the eligibility cutoff), he would have been a few teams' pick over Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or in the mix for the top five at the very least. Perhaps even more impressive, he has shown the talent and commitment to play in North America that could thaw the deep freeze between NHL general managers and Russian prospects in recent years.

The biggest reason for the latter point is that Yakupov pushed away the comfort and money (certainly seven figures) that staying in Russia could provide. Instead he traveled to North America to play with the Sarnia Sting, Steven Stamkos' old team, in the Ontario Hockey League, a considerable move west and an almost unimaginable cultural shock. Even going to play in Moscow would have been a move west for Yakupov. He hails from Tatarstan, 500 miles east of Moscow and even farther removed from the prevailing Russian hockey culture. Tatarstan has turned out no elite hockey talent over the 60-year history of Soviet/Russian hockey, and Yakupov could be the game's first breakout Muslim star. (By his own admission in a phone interview from Moscow, where he was working in a hockey school a few weeks ago, Yakupov does not "go to the mosque very often," but is a proud Tatar.)