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Nail Yakupov: “Not everything went quite right in terms of hockey, but I’m still young, alive and well”

Avalanche forward talks about his path in the NHL, describes his new life in Denver and gives his views on Matt Duchene’s situation.

Dallas Stars v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

In this translated interview with Mikhail Zislis of Sport-express.ru, Colorado Avalanche forward Nail Yakupov discusses his new team, the offseason, and Jaromir Jagr’s possible future with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk of the KHL.

If you use this translated text in any way, please credit Sport-express.ru, Mile High Hockey and Natalia (@exxtragalactic) for the translation.

“Mackinnon is a beast”

Mikhail Zislis: In your first game with your new team against the Dallas Stars, you had three assists. Life is getting better?

Nail Yakupov: It’s just a preseason game: the opponent didn’t have all of their top players on the ice, and our coaches played a lot of young guys too. But I liked the way our team played: active, with the emphasis on the offense. The defensemen didn’t hold the puck for too long and passed it forward right away, so in the end, thanks to fast offense, we managed to score so much. Varlamov played well in the net too. It’s too early to jump to conclusions, but such a win is good psychologically.

Zislis: Did you say hi to your former coach Ken Hitchcock, who kept you on the bench in St. Louis?

Yakupov: No, our paths didn’t cross. And he only thinks about his players—he probably didn’t notice me anyway.

Zislis: The referees seem to be having a field day at the exhibition games. Some players have even complained about the number of penalties.

Yakupov: Now there are new rules regarding the players’ behavior before faceoffs: where they’re supposed to stand, when they can move. They’re also very strict about slashing. Sometimes it got funny, but if they give us so many power play opportunities, then why not? I like it. But something will probably change in the regular season. It’s not our problem though. We made the Stars break the rules with our dynamic play.

Zislis: In the 2016-17 season, the Avalanche came last. Only the laziest didn’t make fun of the team. Have the players got over it by now?

Yakupov: I’m a new person here, so I can speak only for myself. In the offseason, I managed to reset my mind and get rid of all the negativity. It’s always easier to start again than continue something old. No one’s panicking. And the daily workload is enough to avoid wasting energy on bad thoughts.

Zislis: Can the Avalanche get out of the metaphorical bog?

Yakupov: It’s often like a rollercoaster in the NHL. Think about the Leafs, who were the worst team in the league yet put up a good fight against the Capitals in the playoffs last year. Or the Oilers, my former team, spent many years at the bottom and then rocketed up. Sometimes the Stanley Cup champions can’t make the playoffs, like the Kings. Now Colorado and I are starting off with a clean slate. Everything might change.

Zislis: Who’s the faster skater – Connor McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon?

Yakupov: It’s hard to say off the top of my head. They’re both fine in this aspect and even similar in some ways. Though McDavid has quicker feet, while MacKinnon is stronger and has a better technique. Nathan is a beast. But if I have a chance, I’ll try to compete with him.

Ottawa Senators v Edmonton Oilers Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images

“Why rake up the past?”

Zislis: Last season, sitting as a reserve, did you want to give it all up?

Yakupov: One can have different thoughts at such moments. Obviously, you don’t want to go out on the ice only at practices. I can’t treat everything indifferently. I wanted to change everything, even my skates and sticks. You keep thinking about what might be going wrong, whether you should practice more or less, all that. I don’t like seeking the guilty; if something isn’t going well, I always look at myself before everything else. I was very worried at first, but then I realized that I should take it in stride. There are more global problems in life than temporary sporting difficulties. If they gave me a chance, I played; if they didn’t, I practiced harder with the other scratched guys and watched the games from the stands. In any case, I gained new experience.

Zislis: Your agent Igor Larionov said that you had changed your sticks in the summer anyway.

Yakupov: I’m not one to use new equipment all the time. You get used to one thing and try not to change it. But this time I did, and now I’m going to use another stick with a different curve. There are certain game moments where I have to adapt to take and control the puck better.

Zislis: After five years, do you have a feeling that being selected first overall by Edmonton hindered your career? Had it been another organization, everything could have been different.

Yakupov: You could spend a lot of time talking about this. But what’s the point now? If people could change something in the past, I’m sure anyone would do it gladly. Not everything went quite right in terms of hockey, but I’m still young, alive and well, and so are my parents. Every morning I wake up in a good mood and go to practice. Why rake up the past?

Zislis: Do you already know your linemates for the start of the season?

Yakupov: Since the first day, we’ve had three leading lines. This is how we practice: I play with Matt Duchene and rookie Alex Kerfoot, who played in the NCAA last season. It’s good; we have a chance to develop the chemistry.

Zislis: Duchene spent the whole offseason waiting for a trade, but it didn’t happen. The fans are discussing his short video interview that was recorded before the training camp—Matt looks as if he were at a funeral.

Yakupov: Yes, there was such a thing. There were talks about Duchene’s possible trade going around the locker room because we came to Denver early and he arrived only the day before the camp. He had probably wanted the trade. But his mood is getting better with each day. What’s the point in waiting for something? Not much depends on him in the current situation. Whatever the management decides will happen. Dutchy understands everything, so he doesn’t give off any negativity or stand apart from the others; he’s always with the team. If you look at the way he behaves with the team, plays and practices, you wouldn’t think that he might be upset with something.

Zislis: Would you like him to stay?

Yakupov: Dutchy is a high-level forward; there’s a reason why he played for Team Canada at the World Cup last year. Duchene has won gold at the World Championships twice. He’s a fast and active forward, with good hands and an ability to create a scoring chance for you in any situation—as long as you’re ready for it.

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

“I’m still trying to find my place in the NHL”

Zislis: What options besides the Avalanche did you consider in the offseason?

Yakupov: I discussed everything regarding my new team with my family. But I let everyone know from the very beginning that I wanted to stay in the NHL. You’ll always have time to go back to Russia. It was nice that Colorado had been interested in me for quite a while and called me. Right after that, I decided to accept their offer. I’m still a young player, and I should take this chance to stay in the NHL.

Zislis: Rumor has it Vegas was one of the teams interested in getting you.

Yakupov: It’s better to ask my agent about it. I don’t know how far the interest from other teams went, but there have been other options.

Zislis: You could have had a chance to pass by casinos every other day.

Yakupov: I don’t know how to gamble. And you can find entertainment venues of this kind in any city that has an NHL team. But you should always have a good head on your shoulders. You can’t neglect your regimen: the season is long. Every night of poor sleep will affect you, even if we’re talking only about practices.

Zislis: A lot of your friends from the U18 and U20 national teams have gone back to the KHL in the last couple of years: Alex Khokhlachev, Andrey Makarov, Nikita Nesterov, Mikhail Grigorenko.

Yakupov: I had an offer from SKA, and my agent talked to their management. Thanks for the interest, but they knew I was still trying to find my place in the NHL.

Zislis: Did you talk to Grigorenko before signing your contract?

Yakupov: No, I knew enough about the Avalanche from playing against them five times a year. Every time I came to Denver, I talked to Semyon Varlamov, and we had many dinners with Misha [Grigorenko] too. Varly has also helped me with household matters here.

Zislis: Where did you settle down?

Yakupov: I’m renting an apartment in one of the better districts, not far from the other guys I hang out with—Mikko Rantanen, Sven Andrighetto, Mark Barberio.

Zislis: What about Zadorov and Mironov?

Yakupov: Zadorov has just recently arrived, but we often go out for lunch or dinner with our Russian group. Miron is staying in a hotel for now, as are all the players whose future is still uncertain. That’s how they do it here. We train in different groups anyway.

NHL: Preseason-Colorado Avalanche at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

“It would be cool if Jagr signed with Neftekhimik”

Zislis: What’s your opinion on the rumors about Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk’s interest in Jaromir Jagr?

Yakupov: Knowing my father like no one else [Nail’s father, Rail Yakupov, is the GM of Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk], I’ll say he is not joking. The club is probably looking for options. They’ll find the money, so it’s all up to the player himself. But it would be cool if Jagr signed with Neftekhimik. Potentially, it’s a bombshell!

Zislis: Where would you advise him not to go in Nizhnekamsk?

Yakupov: There are almost no rough areas left like it used to be in the 1990s. The times are different now. But hockey players don’t usually go there. I like to have a nice meal with my friends, and there are two good restaurants in the city, so I could give recommendations. In Nizhnekamsk, Jagr could safely practice at night, as he likes. The arena will be at his complete disposal; I’m sure they’ll even teach him how to drive the Zamboni so that he can make ice for himself (laughs).

Zislis: It is said that training in Denver is the hardest due to its altitude.

Yakupov: I was shocked in my second week there. We arrived in Denver to prepare for the season before the training camp. You play one shift and that’s it, you’re completely exhausted. There’s not enough oxygen and the air is very dry, so you breathe “with your gills” at first. The solution is simple: you have to drink a lot of water and spend as much time outside as possible so that you can gradually adapt. The most important thing is that you can’t get used to the local climate unless you live here all the time. If you leave the place for two weeks, you’ll have to go through it all again when you get back. I encountered this when I came to Denver with my old teams.