The Kid from Nizhnekamsk

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Nail Yakupov. He came across the sea and made a name for himself as a stereotype breaker, a maverick, a brilliant talent who challenged the stoic traditions of the game with his boisterous enthusiasm and outbursts of raw, unrestrained emotion.

He wound up in Edmonton, his first NHL home. Looking back now, after all the excitement and all the mistakes, it would be hard to argue that there could have been a worse match. Philosophically, organizationally, developmentally – in almost every way you look at it, Nail Yakupov’s time as an Oiler was one which reverberates with disappointing dissonance.

2012 NHL Entry Draft

Upon remembering any particular draft year, it’s always a little shocking to recall and re-experience the hype machine that went along with it. I remember the 2012 NHL Entry Draft well – it was in Pittsburgh and it took place during a dreadfully hot and humid week towards the end of June. Everyone was commenting on how sweaty and uncomfortable they were – a detail which stands out pretty ominously in retrospect when you consider how well it describes the Edmonton Oilers – Nail Yakupov relationship since that fateful day.

In fact, the awkwardness preceded the official relationship; when drafting day rolled around, the arena was filled with all kinds of uncertainty over what would happen. Rumors had arisen that the Oilers would trade the #1 pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets – no! the New York Islanders – no! they would keep the pick. With it they would certainly draft Nail Yakupov – no! Ryan Murray – no! Griffin Reinhart??? The rumors hit the airwaves as team-employed media personalities threw all kinds of speculation to the winds in what seemed like a last-second attempt to force hands.

Fan polls showed overwhelming support for the selection of Nail Yakupov, an electrifying talent who had broken Steven Stamkos'(!) rookie scoring record with Sarnia. However, young Nail was a winger, and the Oilers were in dire need of centers and defensemen.

Whispered conjecture began of a split amongst the Oilers’ brass between the management group (including owner Daryl Katz), who wanted the offensively brilliant Yakupov, and the scouts, who preferred the stalwart defender, Ryan Murray. In a recent piece penned by Mark Spector, those whispers were confirmed as truth.

I think we can all say with certainty that the Oilers’ greatest needs on that day were down the middle and on the blueline. On the other hand, we can say that Nail Yakupov, at the time of the entry draft, had cemented himself as the #1 prospect in his class.

In accordance with the wishes of management, the owner, and the fans, the Oilers selected the kid from Nizhnekamsk. Those who disagreed with the choice were offered a fair reassurance – ‘This is the kind of player you can deal later on for the guy you really need. He’s sure to put up good numbers and increase his value as a trade option down the road.’

And so it was that, with questions in the air and a less than solid foundation laid, the Oilers-Yakupov relationship was sealed.

The Performance

Celly_bellow2012/13: 48gp, 17g – 14a – 31pts, 0.645 pts/g, -4

2013/14: 63 gp, 11g – 13a – 24pts, 0.380 pts/g, -33

2014/15: 81gp, 14g – 19a – 33pts, 0.407 pts/g, -35

2015/16: 56gp, 6g – 13a – 19pts, 0.339 pts/g, -16

Fittingly enough, the fan base appears to be split when it comes to Nail Yakupov. Some find him extremely entertaining and love his unpredictability. Others find him maddeningly erratic and wish he’d play with more control and awareness.

I do not think anyone on either side could have foreseen this kind of a beginning to Nail Yakupov’s career. There are many who argue, having the benefit of hindsight, that he had deficiencies to his game that were an obvious issue from day one. There are some who argue that he should have been identified as someone who needed extra seasoning in the AHL and time to adjust to what would be required of him in the NHL.

But it’s all too easy to say that today.

Yakupov looked pretty good in his rookie year, even considering his inflated shooting percentage (21%). He was pretty much what he was expected to be – an exciting, raw rookie with an exceptional shot.

The ‘bad-at-defense’ narrative is often significantly based on a damning +/- number in conjunction with a failure of the defensive ‘eye-test’. But, lost as he has often appeared to be on defense, Yakupov was only a -4 as a rookie.

With only his first year in mind, there were not many indicators that the young Tatar would not continue to progress, both offensively and defensively. No one could have known that they had already seen the best numbers Yakupov would put up in Oilers silks.

Years 2, 3, and 4 have not been impressive. Actually, one could argue that they’ve been downright depressing. Yakupov has not scored very much, nor defended very well – in fact, it would seem that he might have regressed in both categories.

I included Yakupov’s +/- numbers above even though I ordinarily put very little stock in the measurement. When we consider Yak’s career -88 it’s important to do so with a view to the putrescence of the team surrounding him. But the sample size has grown large enough to indicate that something is seriously wrong. Couple that number with some of Yakupov’s most significant underlying numbers (CF, CFRel, FF, FFRel) which have never been positive over a full season, and that negative message is inescapably reinforced.

Have some of his difficulties been connected to deployment and linemates? Yes, certainly, and we’ll get to that.

But it is also true that, in general, Nail Yakupov has not been able to generate more offense than he gives up to his competition, even when playing against secondary or tertiary competition. I should think even his most ardent supporters would agree that a former #1 overall draft pick has to provide at least that.

His performance has been unarguably poor. Yakupov has a passionate base of support among Oiler fans, but he has not done much to justify their devotion. I say this counting myself among their number. He has shown flashes of brilliance, and even multi-game streaks of strong, game-changing play, but such displays have not come often enough.

The Deployment

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While Nail Yakupov has not performed well in his stint with the Oilers, it must nevertheless be asserted that the team has failed to optimize Yakupov’s opportunity to succeed. And not only a little – the organization’s failure in this regard is monstrous, absolute, and inexcusable.

There are certain basic concepts at play in the logical and optimal deployment of a young and developing winger. These are concepts which really ought to be self-evident. Evidently, however, they are not.

  1. Lead him with an established, responsible center who is good at hockey.
  2. Back him with an established, responsible defense pairing that is good at hockey.
  3. Cover for him with an established, dependable goalie who is good at hockey.

You can see, I hope, where the Oilers went wrong. They actually failed to do any one of these things consistently. They jettisoned Shawn Horcoff after a year, the blueline’s been a tire fire’s tire fire for the whole of Yakupov’s NHL career, and only now, in the 2015/16 season, have they been able to find a dependable starter in Cam Talbot. Sunil Agnihotri, over at Copper & Blue, combs over Yak’s most common linemates in more detail here – it’s not pretty.

Furthermore, Oilers management and coaches appeared to be of two minds when it came to their developmental vision for Yakupov. Did they want him to develop in the cast of a Pavel Bure? an Alexander Ovechkin? a Vladimir Tarasenko? or did they expect him to become more of a defensive conscience for his line, a heavy forechecker, and possibly even, a penalty-killer? Maybe a Marian Hossa-lite, or a Justin Williams?

According to the first scenario one would expect offensive zone opportunities with highly skilled linemates, PP minutes, and an emphasis on putting him into position to score, score, score. According to the second scenario one might reasonably expect middle 6 deployment, with work on the PK, possibly the PP as well, and opportunities to learn the shut-down game.

The Oilers tried both and committed to neither. The result? A mish-mash monstrosity of a middle 6 winger. He can not kill penalties and he does not score many goals. He does not cheat for offense but he does not defend particularly well. He can shoot hard but not very accurately. He can play well but rarely with teammates. He works hard but not often very smartly.

He has the appearance of a talented player, but does not yet have the substance of one.

The Fallout

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We are here.

Nail Yakupov was not just any young player. He was a young player who came at the cost of the investment of a #1 pick. The development of this costly a player ought to have been paramount to the organization. Managers and coaches alike had better been moving mountains to surround this valuable a piece with good players and the right situation so that he could at least justify the investment he cost.

Instead, we have what we have – a disgruntled former #1 overall pick, who is (rightly) unhappy with how he has been treated, an organization which is (rightly) disappointed in the performance of a player from whom they expected more, and a (rightly) frustrated though shockingly loyal fan base.

When Nail Yakupov is traded this summer for cents on the dollar we will have seen the nadir of this dark, long rebuild. That he will be traded at his own request only rubs salt in the gaping, bleeding wound.

Nail Yakupov – I sincerely hope you enjoy whatever lies ahead of you in your career. May you play better and receive fairer treatment at your next stop down the road. You have the talent – hopefully you’ll be surrounded by those who can better help you grow.

The kid from Nizhnekamsk is moving on.

Take care, Nail.

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