Sun Jan 29 08:27pm EST
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."
[Related: Yakupov Photo Gallery]
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,"