In his first two games with the St. Louis Blues, Russian forward and former first overall pick Nail Yakupov has made a positive first impression with his new team.
The 23-year-old Yakupov didn’t have a point Wednesday while skating on a line with Patrik Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin, but flashed some of his trademark speed and skill at times. He scored his first goal in a Blues sweater in Thursday’s home opener and added an assist in a 3-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild.
“I try to not feel any pressure,” said Yakupov, who was excited to be trying out Scottrade Center for the first time as a home rink. “It’s a great building, it’s a really big building and the fans love their hockey here. When I play against the Blues (before) it was really hard to play against them. The fans are awesome here and I think they’re really excited for the first game.
“It should be easier for us to play in our building with our fans, they’ve just got to get us going.”
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In 254 NHL games before Saturday, Yakupov had 51 goals and 113 points. Is it tough joining a new team just days before the regular season begins, having to absorb a different system under Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and work with different players and coaches?
“It’s not that hard like you guys maybe think,” he said. “Pretty much all 30 teams play kind of the same system. After you lose the puck you want to get it back, right, as quick as possible. It’s all about the little details that Hitch and his staff have been talking about with me.
“I probably won’t remember everything in one day, but I think I’m getting there. It’s not that hard. It’s a big deal, but I’m going to be focusing on it and I’m going to listen to coach for sure.”
Hitchcock had mostly praise for his newest forward.
“Much better defensively than I thought,” Hitchcock said. “He’s got great outside speed. What I liked more than anything was his conscience. His conscience was there. We’re not trying to overwhelm him by having him do a bunch of things. We’re just going to keep it five on five for the first week to 10 days and see how much he can absorb there.”
Yakupov’s speed and skill definitely caught Hitchcock’s attention.
“He created three chances,” Hitchcock said. “He’s dynamic with outside speed and I think if we can find a combination in that line we can have a good line there.”
Forward Alexander Steen also noticed the different elements Yakupov brings to the lineup.
“Smart decisions with the puck (and) he’s obviously individually very skilled and makes plays in tight areas,” Steen said. “We’re happy to have him.”
Yakupov already had at least one friend in the Blues dressing room in star forward Vladimir Tarasenko.
“We’re good friends,” Yakupov said. “We’d always see each other when we played against each other, go for dinner and hang out for a bit. We’d always have a good conversation going. I remember him since when he played in the World Juniors and I know his agent really well.
“I think we can be really good friends. He’s a real good guy and absolutely he’s one of the great players in the league, so it’s good to be with him.”