Given his personality (along with his status as a young, immensely talented Russian hockey player), Nail Yakupov is going to be a pretty polarizing character over the course of his career, however long it ends up going.
Before the season had even started, we’d already seen more than a few debates spur, based off of his personality alone. But now that we’ve actually seen him play, those debates have fired up again, mostly concerning the way that Yakupov has celebrated after scoring big goals.
One took place last week. After a controversial call in the waning seconds that would have cost the Edmonton Oilers the game against the Los Angeles Kings, Yakupov put the puck in the net with less than 10 seconds left to force overtime. Yakupov reacted by sprinting and sliding across center ice.
Many didn’t particularly care for the celebration, given that it was just a regular season game. But many enjoyed it and enjoyed the passion. Then came Wednesday’s celebration after Yakupov scored a beauty of an overtime winner against the Phoenix Coyotes. Yakupov swatted the puck out of the air past Chad Johnson for the win.
After seeing what he did against the Kings, most were probably expecting something involving actual fireworks or for Yakupov to actually lift the entire arena and toss it up to Seattle. Nope. All Yakupov did was get behind the Phoenix net, raise his arms, and motion for his teammates to join him with his fingers.
Derek Morris took exception and starting throwing punches, a few of which caught Ryan Whitney in the dome (here’s hoping Morris hears from the league about that). How Morris reacted is still completely puzzling. But with a figure as polarizing as Yakupov, this is probably the reaction you are going to get, especially from a team like Phoenix, that plays with a constant chip on their shoulder.
No matter what you think of Yakupov, whether you think he’s a premium young talent in this league who is going to be a superstar, or an over-the-top pompous Russian fool, there’s no denying that he brings excitement to the game. Rather than criticizing him for every move that he makes, let’s all enjoy it a little bit.