UFA, Russia – They were the first players selected in the last two NHL drafts by the same club, but the first time Canada’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Russia’s Nail Yakupov step on the ice together, they’ll be combatants.
The captains of their respective countries at the world junior hockey championship provide an intriguing and unusual subplot to what is already billed as the biggest game of the preliminary round.
The winner of Monday’s meeting will top Pool B and gain a bye to the semifinal, while the loser must advance via a quarter-final. The other prominent storyline is which of the Edmonton Oilers’ prized prospects can lead their country to an advantageous playoff position.
“I haven’t seen him play live yet so I’m excited about that,” Nugent-Hopkins said of the Russian earlier this week. “Obviously he’s a special player and I look forward to playing with him in a couple of years.”
Nugent-Hopkins, from Burnaby, B.C., was the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft by Edmonton and has already played one season with the Oilers.
He’s Canada’s first-line centre in Ufa because the NHL lockout made him available to this year’s Canadian team. Nugent-Hopkins didn’t play in the world junior tournament at 18 years of age because he remained with the Oilers, although he did play in this year’s world men’s championship.
Edmonton made Yakupov, from Nizhnekamsk, the first draft pick this year. It’s likely the 19-year-old would be in their lineup and teammates with Nugent-Hopkins already if not for the lockout.
Yakupov has drawn extra Canadian attention to him this tournament. In an English translation of a Russian story published on the eve of the tournament, he was quoted as calling Canadian players “dirty.” That drew ire on Twitter from Don Cherry.
Yakupov didn’t make himself available to reporters at the tournament until Sunday, during the third period of Canada’s 2-1 win over the U.S., when he was asked to clarify what he meant.
“I said a different thing,” Yakupov said in English before adding through an interpreter: “The sense was lost during the translation. There’s no sense right now to explain what happened two weeks ago. I don’t want to comment. Just ask me questions about tomorrow’s game.”
The Russian was as complimentary of Nugent-Hopkins.
“He’s a good player,” Yakupov said of his future teammate. “He shows a great game. He’s got points. He’s pretty good. We’ll see tomorrow.”
Nugent-Hopkins says he and Yakupov have never been on the ice together. They spoke briefly at this year’s NHL draft in Pittsburgh in June, but since neither anticipated the lockout then, the subject of the world junior championship in Ufa didn’t come up.
The lockouts of both 2004-05 and 1994-95 also provided the world junior championship those years with the first overall picks from the previous two NHL drafts.
In 2005, it was Russia’s Alexander Ovechkin (Washington, 2004) and Canadian goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh, 2003). In 1995, it was Canadian defenceman Ed Jovanovski (Florida, 1994) and forward Alexander Daigle (Ottawa, 1993).
Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini isn’t in Ufa, but expects Monday’s game to be a proud moment for the franchise.
“They’re both going to be in the moment and to be able to see Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the captain of Team Canada, and Nail Yakupov, the captain of Russia play each other, without a doubt is going to be exciting for everyone in our organization.” Tambellini said.
Nugent-Hopkins leads the tournament in scoring with three goals and five assists in three games. Yakupov has a goal and three assists in three games.
The six-foot, 185-pound Nugent-Hopkins, a finalist for last season’s Calder Trophy as the top rookie in NHL, has silkiness and finesse in his game and brings the poise of a player with an full season already under his belt.
The five-foot-11, 161-pound Yakupov, who is playing for his hometown KHL club this winter, combines raw power with strong puck skills. There’s considerable expectations on Yakupov, and the entire Russian team, to win gold.
To beat a lockout-enhanced Canadian team Monday and enjoy the extra day of rest in the medal round that goes to the winner could be significant in their quest.
“We’re going to play calmly. We’re not going to get too emotional,” Yakupov said. “It’s going to be a good game. We’re in a good mood.”
Nugent-Hopkins says the head-to-head between he and Yakupov takes a back seat to the bigger picture Monday.
“You can’t really have a rivalry,” Nugent-Hopkis said. “We’re going to be on the same team in a couple of years.
“For me and all the guys in the room, for sure it’s Russia versus Canada. It’s going to be an intense game. We look forward to games like that.”