Nail Yakupov steps on the ice with five of his Russian compatriots for a grueling practice at a rink outside Detroit, and although he is only 19 years old, he displays fl ashes of raw skill that call to mind Alex Ovechkin. Yakupov is naturally talented, but the NHL’s first overall draft pick knows that he can’t rely on talent alone if he wants to become an NHL great for the Edmonton Oilers.
He never has.
From childhood, Yakupov has always trained and competed against older players, and that experience helped his skills advance at a faster rate than other players his age.
Nail (pronounced nah-yil) grew up in Nizhnekamsk, a small city a few hours east of Moscow. His father, who played and coached hockey, had Yakupov skating at the age of 3 and encouraged him to play the sport as much as possible—even with much older kids. Playing against those older opponents forced Yakupov to develop quickly to keep pace with more mature athletes; and it did the trick. Yakupov credits those experiences with molding him into the top prospect he is today. “I always was good because I had a lot of time to skate,” he says. “I skated with [my father’s] team and older kids.”
Yakupov’s goal-scoring ability, explosive speed and lethal lefthanded shot made him a top prospect. But it was his work ethic that built him into a top talent in the world. Playing for the Sarnia Sting, he dominated the Ontario Hockey League, scoring 49 goals and 101 points in 65 games during his rookie season.
Despite his early achievements and dedication to improvement, making it to the NHL was still a humbling and surreal experience for Yakupov. He says, “Three or four years ago, I just watched NHL games on TV. I couldn’t believe that I was in the draft and picked first. On draft day, I was nervous. It was a lot of pressure.”
The young phenom realizes that becoming an elite player in the NHL will not be easy; but he is determined to make an immediate impact on the game. No stranger to competing against top players, Yakupov says, “Now it’s the next level, and I have to work even harder because it’s the NHL. You have to work, work and work to be the best.”
To prepare for the more physical game in the NHL, Yakupov enlisted the help of Joe Neal, owner and head performance specialist of 2SP in Madison Heights, Mich. “Nail was a bit concerned that his legs weren’t strong enough,” says Neal. “So our focus has been on lower-body power, strength and endurance.”
When STACK visited 2SP, we saw Yakupov go through an intense workout, including three combos of an explosive exercise followed by a Prowler speed drill. The workout was killer. Yakupov was dripping sweat and constantly out of breath, and we wondered if he would lose his lunch. But he gave it his all on each rep, showing the hard work and determination of a mature veteran. “The stuff that we’ve put him through has been very demanding, but he has lived up to the challenge,” says Neal. “I’ve watched a kid develop into a professional.”
Joe Neal: “The goal of this series is to produce more force into the ground. We want to increase his fi rst-step quickness so he can get to full speed as fast as possible.”
Coaching Points: Keep knees in line with hips and ankles // Keep chest up and back flat // Accelerate bar as quickly as possible
Coaching Points: Keep hips forward and body in straight line // Drive feet into ground
Sets/Distance: 5x20 yards
Joe Neal:“These two exercises build lower-body pushing power and strength in the posterior chain, which are two keys to increasing skating speed and power on the ice.”
Coaching Points: Keep knees in line with hips and ankles // Explode up immediately after landing // Land softly with feet on box
Coaching Points: Keep hips forward and body in straight line // Focus on high knee drive
Sets/Distance: 3x20 yards
Joe Neal: “We have a little bit of a strongman and track influence. This builds full-body strength and shocks the core while still improving first-step quickness.”
Coaching Points: Keep back flat and core tight // Push tire away from body as forcefully as possible
Coaching Points: Keep body and arms straight // Keep core tight and sprint in straight line
Sets/Distance: 3x15 yards