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RUSSIANS TIRED OF NHL COMMITMENT QUESTIONS

Times wires

PITTSBURGH - The question came up often in Nail Yakupov's meetings with NHL scouts and general managers. And though the 18-year-old Russian is still learning English, he knows enough that he tenses up the second he hears the letters "KHL."

The player projected to be the likely No. 1 pick when the draft begins tonight understands why he's continually asked how committed he is to playing in North America when the KHL, Russia's top pro league, offers big paydays, not to mention the comforts of home.

"I think just about the NHL," Yakupov said he has told teams. "It's my dream to play in the NHL. My focus is just NHL."

Skepticism is part of the territory now that the once fertile pipeline between Russia and the NHL has started to dry up. The KHL's paydays and familiarities - not to mention shorter schedule - have many Russians opting to stay home.

The issue is bigger this year than usual because three Russians are likely high first-round picks. Mikhail Grigorenko and Andrei Vasilevski are the others.

Yakupov and Grigorenko played junior hockey in Canada. "Mikhail says, 'Do these people really think I actually had my mother leave Russia and live with me in North America for a whole year just to go back to Russia?' " Grigorenko agent Jay Grossman said.

Even Alex Galchenyuk has faced the question, and he was born in Milwaukee, plays junior hockey in Canada and wants to play for U.S. national teams.

The Oilers have the No. 1 pick for the third straight year. General manager Steve Tambellini said Thursday he was comfortable holding on to the pick after not getting a trade offer worth considering. Oilers staff was to meet this morning to make final decision on pick, ESPN reported.

around the league: Penguins center Jordan Staal, entering the final year of his contract, turned down a 10-year, $60 million extension offer, according to media reports. "He is not prepared to enter into a contract extension at this time," agent Paul Krepelka said. ... The Ducks signed a five-year affiliation agreement with AHL Norfolk that begins next season. The Lightning last week switched its affiliate from Norfolk to Syracuse after a record-setting season in which Norfolk won the league championship. Syracuse was the Ducks' affiliate this season.

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