Sunday, January 18, 2015

Nail Yakupov Jersey Card

Nail Yakupov hasn't had it easy thus far in his NHL career. The pressure of being a first-overall pick in a Canadian hockey market on a lousy team were all losing predicaments, and I'm not certain even Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin could have saved the Edmonton Oilers at that point.

And yet he was tied for most points in his rookie season with the eventual Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau.

But it's been a downward slide from there, statistically, and he's now with his third head coach in three NHL seasons (fourth if you count GM Craig MacTavish stepping behind the bench for a few games between Dallas Eakins' departure and Todd Nelson's actual arrival a few weeks ago).

He has exactly two and a half seasons of experience (well, considering his rookie campaign was a lockout-shortened season, maybe two full seasons would be more accurate), and yet Oilers fans have been clamoring for him to be traded for over a year. And some Montréal Canadiens fans would like to see him reunited with his OHL partner with the Sarnia Sting, Alex Galchenyuk, but I don't see it happening. Though I do have a strange feeling that Lars Eller will finish the season in Edmonton...

The question hockey fans should ask themselves before criticizing him is: Who is Nail Yakupov, as a hockey player?

His favourite player growing up was Pavel Bure, a flashy offensive player who passed the 50-goal mark five times, but was a minus-2 in his 59-goal season with the Florida Panthers in 2000-01. Yakupov isn't as fast as Bure, but he has the same type of flair for the net and good moves (as can be attested by his shootout goal against Roberto Luongo last night).

But like Bure (and Ovechkin in his early days), Yakupov has yet to learn the benefits of playing a sound defensive game to increase the likelihood of having more offensive chances. Keep in mind, he's barely 21 years old and won't turn 22 until next season (late October); some rookies don't make it to the NHL until well into their 20s, and he already has over 150 games of NHL experience.

Even if he turns out to be a Thomas Vanek-type of player who barely enters the defensive zone, there are ways to integrate the way he'd play the game in a system that would adapt, provided he's let loose to score his 40 goals and set up those of the linemates assigned to cover for him without the puck - the Oilers don't have the Daniel Brière/Jason Pominville/Zach Parise-type of player to make that work, though, for one, and at just 21, it's also a tad too early to give up on teaching him the fundamentals of defensive responsibility.

I'm just saying there are ways around his deficiencies if, by the time he's 25 or 26, he still hasn't rounded up his game.

Either way, the Oilers need to acknowledge that he, like Bure, is (potentially) a goal-scoring machine. He had his first hat trick in his first season, one at the U18 World Championships (in a winning cause agaisnt Team Canada), and has a 100% shootout rate.

He's not as complete as Galchenyuk in terms of two-way play and setting up teammates as well as completing their plays, but with a top-level setup man, chances are he'd be on the positive end in terms of goal differentials more often than not - something that hasn't happened too often in Edmonton, relegated to the Oilers' third line or even cut as a healthy scratch. I'm not saying I'm against ''tough love'', but if it doesn't work, perhaps it's time to try spending more face-to-face time actually teaching and demonstrating before another bout of watching the game from the press box.

So far, he just hasn't been put in a position to succeed. Then again, the Oilers can't pair him with his ideal partners, because they don't have them, but if he could play with a terrific setup man who plays a two-way game (a Patrice Bergeron type) and a brute who can protect his fragile frame and get the puck from the tough areas (say, a Milan Lucic type), he'd be an All-Star by now.

We'll see what happens. In the meantime, here he is wearing #64 (6+4=10, Bure's number and the one he's currently sporting) from his rookie season, with the Oilers' classic white uniform (though the swatch included is dark blue, like the Reebok Edge pajama-type uniforms from two lockouts ago):

It's card #RM-NY from Upper Deck's 2013-14 SPx set (part of the Rookie Materials sub-set, the swatch coming from a jersey he wore in a photo shoot).

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