Nail Yakupov cannot wait to open the throttle again.
The Sarnia Sting right wing barely needs any introduction, since he's been the consensus favourite to be the NHL's No. 1 overall pick since, if not before, dazzling scouts in last spring's IIHF under-18 championship. The native of Nizhnekamsk, Russia, is a rare confluence of quick hands, creativity and assertiveness on the ice. He's done little to disabuse most observers he will go No. 1 between his play for Russia's silver-medal world junior team while putting up 22 goals and 55 points in 29 games for the Sting despite losing time to back and knee ailments. It speaks well for him that he rushed back from hurting his knee in the world junior gold-medal game to rejoin the Sting.
"My knee is fine, I'm feeling 100 per cent," says Yakupov, who tested out his knee with a 3-in-3 weekend for the Sting, scoring an unassisted goal vs. powerhouse Ottawa and contributing a helper in a 2-1 win over a Kingston team that played the trap. "I missed 20 games, so it's pretty exciting to be back. We just need to keep going, we need some wins."
By all accounts, Yakupov — the type who actually asks media folks if they want an interview — has the personality to match his game. Another big takeaway from his injury-interrupted second season with the Sting is that he's scoring at a prolific rate without cheating in the defensive zone. His team-best +19 plus/minus is more than double that of any of his Sting teammates. Listed at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, he's also not averse to finishing the odd check along the boards.
On top of missing time, one dark lining in Yakupov's season is that the Sting (24-19-1-5) are lagging behind the lead pack in the OHL's Western Conference. Can Yakupov make them a darkhorse, especially if fellow potential top 10 pick Alex Galchenyuk returns from rehabbing a surgically repaired knee around March 1?
"We have a good team," Yakupov says. "We just need to start winning and stay focused,"
1. What do you think you need to do to prove you should be the No. 1 choice?
"I just play the game the way I can play. I don't want to change something with myself. I need to just work hard every day and win battles ... We'll see how it goes. I want to make playoffs and play good and play hard."
2. Growing up, your favourite player was Pavel Bure? Why him?
"When I was young, I just took No. 10 because of him. He was fast, he was a star, and he scored a lot of goals. I remember the [1998 Olympic] semifinal game against Finland when he scored five goals. It was probably after that game that I took No. 10. It's been my first number for my whole life. If I play on another team and 10's being worn by another guy, I'll take another number but No. 10 will be first in my heart." (You ever meet Bure?) "I saw him once when I was in a tournament when I was 11 or 12. I said 'hi,' that was it."
3. Do you think you'll ever get shadowed in the NHL like you occasionally have been in junior?
"I don't think so because in the NHL there is so much skill [to focus on one player]. There's also a lot of respect among the players. Here they will get in your face and call you all sorts of things."
4. Aside from Sarnia, what has been your favourite place to play in the OHL?
"I like London [John Labatt Centre]. There's a lot of fans. It's the best, but for me it's second because I love to play in Sarnia in front of my team's fans."
5. You came to Ottawa, Senators country, and you are wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs hat? You know what that means?
"It was in my bag at the [NHL research and] development camp [in August]. Everybody got one. Just need something to keep my hair out of my face."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: OHL Images).