Nail Yakupov knew he'd spend part of this season crisscrossing Canada.
He just didn't count on wearing red, white and blue while he was doing it.
Yakupov's plans to skate for the Edmonton Oilers were delayed by the NHL lockout, so the first-overall pick of the 2012 Entry Draft will instead headline an outstanding Russian side as it embarks on a six-game, 11-day tour that kicks off tonight against the top prospects of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in Blainville-Boisbriand (7 p.m. EST, NHL Network in the U.S.; Sportsnet in Canada). The two teams meet again Wednesday in Val d'Or (same time and channels) before the Russians head west for sets against the Ontario and Western leagues.
Since it was first played in 2003, the Subway Super Series has become one of the tent-pole events of the junior hockey calendar, allowing Canada and Russia to test drive players in advance of the World Junior Championship (Dec. 26-Jan. 5). The 2011 tour was the most thrilling to date, with CHL teams going 3-2-1 while outscoring the visitors 30-26. The Q, however, dropped both of its games and is looking to halt a four-game losing skid against the Russians.
The Russians' commitment to sending over their best possible talent hasn't always been there. In 2009, they lost all six games by a combined score of 27-11. That won't be a problem this year. As hosts of the 2013 World Juniors, they are treating the Super Series as more than just a traveling training camp. With nine NHL draftees and 13 prospects for the 2013 draft, this team won't look much different from the side the Russians hope to ice at home in Ufa.
There's no way of knowing if Yakupov will be available to them when the world juniors gets underway, but he'll be one of the focal points of the Super Series. After a contentious bit of wrangling that finally freed him from his contract with the Ontario Hockey League's Sarnia Sting in order to turn pro in the KHL, Yakupov has lived up to his billing, tallying 10 goals in his first 13 games for Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik. He's been skating in practice on the top line for this tournament with Alexander Khochlachev, Boston's 2011 second-rounder, and Kirill Kapustin, an undrafted 19-year-old winger who turned heads with a hat trick in Russia's 6-3 win over Canada in Game 2 of last summer's Challenge series. That unit could change, though, as the team adds temporary reinforcements at each tour stop.
Russia's roster will be bolstered for the Quebec leg with four QMJHL standouts, including 2012 Buffalo Sabres first-rounder Mikhail Grigorenko. "He's starting to shake that [reputation for] inconsistency," one scout said of the Quebec Remparts star. "He's looked really involved, really motivated." The lanky center had 12 goals and 31 points in his first 16 games for Patrick Roy's Remparts and should challenge for the league scoring title ... but only if the NHL lockout remains in effect. If the dispute is resolved, he'll be challenging for the Calder Trophy with the Sabres.
Anton Zlobin, the overtime hero for Shawinigan in the 2012 Memorial Cup championship game and a sixth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2012, will also suit up for the Russians, along with Artem Sergeev, an undrafted defender from the Val d'Or Foreurs. Scouts, though, will be focusing 2013 prospect Valentin Zykov.
Zykov, a 6-1, 210-pound forward, has arguably been Baie-Comeau's best player since he was taken 76th in the 2012 CHL Import Draft. The same scout who weighed in on Grigorenko sees Zykov's draft stock rising as a result of a quick transition to the North American game. "He's got to work on his consistency like a lot of kids, but he's been a real impact player for them," the scout said. "He's a strong. He can really fire it, and he's tough to knock off the puck."
Zykov was rated as a C skater in Central Scouting's initial 2013 rankings, but his hot start (11-9-20 in 17 games, second among rookies) highlights the fluidity of that list. "This is a good test for him, but it's still early," the scout said. "You'll hear his name a lot more as the season goes on."
This is also a chance for Hockey Canada brass to get a look at how some of the Q's top talent stacks up against a traditional rival ahead of the December selection camp for the Canadian World Junior team. The QMJHL had four players make the cut last year, but has a chance to top that in 2013.
Assuming the lockout is still in effect, center Jonathan Huberdeau, the Florida Panthers prospect, has a guaranteed top-six spot waiting for him. Beyond him, there are no sure things, but Chicago Blackhawks first-rounder Phillip Danault (26th, 2011), a center, comes close. He boasts a high-end skill set, but it's his leadership and work ethic that Team Canada will find most appealing. Boisbriand native Charles Hudon, a winger and fifth-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2012, is probably a longer shot. He has the touch around the net, but as one scout told SI.com last year, "his skating is a question mark." He needs to stand out in this event.
Defenseman Xavier Ouellet, Detroit's second-round selection in 2011, has the advantage of experience -- he played in the 2011 Super Series -- and skating in front of his own fans for Monday night's game. Arguably the best all-around defender in the Q, Ouellet's chances of making the world juniors squad could hinge on the status of the lockout. If prime blueliners like Dougie Hamilton (Boston Bruins; OHL's Niagara Ice Dogs) and Ryan Murray (Columbus Blue Jackets; WHL's Everett Silvertips) are unavailable, he's a lock, but a good showing here could bolster his case for a depth spot even in Canada ices a full roster.
Goaltender Zach Furcale won't see action on Monday night after playing two games for Halifax over the weekend. He was lit up for four goals in the third period as Rimouski came back to win 6-5 on Sunday afternoon -- but he'll start Wednesday in a bid to back up Malcolm Subban for Canada. Scouts have made up their mind on his Mooseheads teammate, winger Nathan MacKinnon -- who will likely be the top pick in the 2013 NHL draft -- but they'll have to wait for another look at Jonathan Drouin, who was scratched late Sunday night due to a foot injury. The Halifax left winger won't be replaced on the roster.