Nail Yakupov, NHL Central Scouting's top-ranked North American skater (Aaron Bell, OHL Images)Much like Steven Stamkos in 2008, John Tavares in 2009, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins last year — Sarnia Sting star Nail Yakupov has apparently separated himself from the pack as the clear-cut top talent in the NHL's draft class of 2012.
Yakupov's impeccable offensive instincts and abilities are what make him great. This elite skill was evident in his first season in the Ontario Hockey League. He bested Stamkos' 92-point rookie season record in Sarnia with 49 goals and 101 points throughout 65 games. He also turned heads at the IIHF world under-18 championship, posting an outstanding six goals and 13 points in seven games for the Russians.
Unfortunately for him, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound right wing only suited up for 42 games this year due to back and knee injuries plus the concussion he suffered in early March. Yakupov shone when in the lineup, though. He scored 31 goals and 69 points, averaging over one-and-a-half points per game.
Scout's take: "Yakupov's skating is unrivaled in this year's draft," says Matt Moran of OHL Central Scouting. "He is blessed with a powerful stride and incredible four-way mobility that makes him a threat to score every time he touches the puck. Nail is so explosive and gets to top speed in the blink of an eye. On the offensive side of the blueline he consistently brings fans to the edge of their seats. He is a pure trigger man and is certainly NHL ready in that regard, which is something that can't be said for many forwards in this draft."
High expectations and lofty comparisons go hand in hand with being this good this fast. Yakupov has been touted as the NHL's next big star and franchise player, drawing some comparisons to the likes of New Jersey Devils sniper Ilya Kovalchuk and Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin.
Scout's take: "In terms of franchise players, names like Crosby, Ovechkin and (Columbus Blue Jackets') Rick Nash come to mind, and I am not sure if Nail's game is as complete as those players in their respective draft years," says Moran. "Although he showed at the world junior this year he can distribute and use his teammates effectively, he is certainly a one-dimensional player right now.
"While his defensive play will no doubt develop with NHL coaching and more experience, I am not sure if he has a complete enough game right now. While he will no doubt be a first line talent for a long time in the NHL, I think to be a bona fide superstar Nail will need to focus on improving his play both away from the puck and in his own end."
As mentioned above, Yakupov struggled with injuries this season. These injury woes seem to be a possible cause for concern. Some have worried that the 18-year-old Russian could be accident-prone in the future. Others believe Yakupov will be able to put his health issues behind him.
Scout's take: "Yakupov did suffer a handful of injuries this year, but the year before he stayed healthy," says David Burstyn, former NHL scout and current head scout for Mckeen's Hockey. "One also has to keep in mind that the Sting didn't have much in terms of toughness or protection for Yakupov and he was often left to fend for himself, in addition he played a ton of minutes, close to 25-28 minutes which is a lot for a forward at any level. He became a target for other teams and after the first few months of the season there was not as much push back from Yakupov as there was last season as he realized he could not take on all the physical challenges."
The Russian factor
It is no secret that some NHL general managers are cautious of drafting Russians early on in the draft. The main reason for this seems to be because of the risk of the player deciding to stay home or go back home to play in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Nashville learned this the hard way with Alexander Radulov. The 25-year-old didn't show up to Predators training camp in 2008 mainly because he was offered a better deal in the KHL. He did recently return to Nashville, but no one truly knows what country he will call home next year.
No one can say with 100 per cent certainty that Yakupov will not pull "a Radulov." However, all signs point to Yakupov sticking to North America. After all, he did move halfway across the world at the young age of 16 to play major junior hockey in Canada. If this doesn't show commitment to wanting to play in the NHL, what does?
Scout's take: "I think had Yakupov not come over to the CHL there may have been more risk [of losing him to the KHL]," says Burstyn. "However, he has been on North American soil for two years now and his agent Igor Larionov has made it very clear that Yakupov's intentions are to play in the NHL. There were some concerns as well with Alex Burmistrov [the eighth overall pick in 2010 from the OHL's Barrie Colts] but that pick worked out fine for the Jets. Generally I am a firm believer that if they come over to play in the CHL then the NHL is the path they want to choose."
NHL's Central Scouting Service, International Scouting Service, and Mckeen's Hockey all ranked Yakupov No. 1 in their draft rankings. On Thursday, HockeyProspect announced it would put him No. 2 behind his Sarnia teammate Alex Galchenyuk, the playmaking centre who played only eight games this season after sustaining a knee injury in September. HockeyProspect also had Tyler Seguin ahead of Taylor Hall in 2010, when the latter went No. 1 to the Edmonton Oilers and Seguin went No. 2 to the Boston Bruins.
Since the top-heavy Oilers won the draft lottery, it is possible they could take a defenceman over Yakupov with the No. 1 draft pick. Nonetheless, if recent history of drafting a forward with the first pick applies to this year's draft, it appears Yakupov is their safest bet as a future star. After all, the last seven forwards selected with the top pick are Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, and Alexander Ovechkin.
Meanwhile, as BTN's Neate Sager pointed out in a column on Everett Silvertips' Ryan Murray and a brief history of blueliners going No. 1 overall, selecting a defenceman with the top pick of the draft hasn't been near as prosperous. None of defenders selected first overall since 1979 have won the Norris Trophy.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen