Shovels down. The deed finally over, we look around with mild amounts of shame in our eyes. The deafening silence only serves to build the tension. Somebody has to say something but everyone’s gaze is crawling the ground. Fine. I guess someone should say something. It’s the least he deserved.
Standing over the corpse of Nail Yakupov’s Oiler career that we just buried in the dead of night, I am struck by a few thoughts. One is, of course, regret. Surely we all wish things had turned out differently. Nail Yakupov was drafted first overall in 2012 amidst so much controversy. He was the consensus top player in the draft per every major scouting service in the country, but even then a large contingent of the Oilers braintrust didn’t want to take him. They were now famously overruled from above. Fast forward a few years and seems everybody lost that day.
After his first season the “I told you so’s” we hear now were sheepishly tucked away out of ear shot. Nail Yakupov had led all NHL rookies in scoring and was Edmonton’s top goal scorer. He was a scoring winger on the rise after one season in the books. But, it didn’t take long for the contingent of Oiler brass who desperately needed to be right about Yakupov to get their chance to gloat.
Within the first weeks of new head coach Dallas Eakins’ tenure, the enigmatic *wink* Russian winger was a healthy scratch. He was off of the scoring line and told to learn the finer points of the game away from the puck. Earn that ice time, kid. If you really want it then master the swarm first. Unfortunately for him this exercise proved to be nothing more than extended torture.
Yak seemingly never recovered. The Oilers stopped developing a top six player and started developing a bottom six one when they committed to playing number 10 away from offensively minded players. The Edmonton Oilers played him in the bottom six for three seasons and over that time he was the fouth highest scoring player for the team and by far the highest scoring player in his role (highest points per game by a wide margin from 2013-2016 with 20+ games and less than 15 minutes per game), but he wasn’t being judged by his role any longer.
Nail Yakupov’s greatest failing as a first overall pick in Edmonton was not living up offensively to the feats performed by fellow former top pick Taylor Hall. Where Hall could make something out of nothing, Yakupov needed to play with capable players. Where Hall could and would transport the puck from his own zone to the attacking net, Yak was better as the trigger man or at least after the puck crossed the red line with possession. Without a centerman who could move the puck effectively he was on an island.
Although the on-ice results showed that Yakupov was doing a better job every year equalizing the ratio of shot attempts for and against when he was playing, he never did shake the reputation for major blunders he earned as a young pro. It was sometimes painful to see him miss his assignments when he was still a teenager in the NHL. Despite the fact that those major blunders became less frequent, they remained part of his identity for fans and media alike.
He wasn’t a perfect player. Far from it. But by the time he played his final game as an Oiler, Nail Yakupov was at the very least an average middle six forward. That’s not what they wanted when they drafted him, but it is what they trained him to be from the Eakins era forward. Andrew Berkshire wrote about Yak here and provided the chart below in that same article. In terms of offensive impact, Nail Yakupov was better than average.
He wasn’t as bad as most seemed to assert. Unfortunately the damage was done from the perspective of both parties. They needed a change. I won’t pretend to like the trade or even say it was necessary. Not at a time when the Oilers could have placed Yakupov in a chance to succeed for more than a 10 game stretch. At worst he would continue to struggle with one of McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins, Draisaitl, or Caggiula as a center. At best he starts to show more teams that he can still be productive in the right situation.
I can’t change my spots on this one. I will cheer for Yakupov in his new home. I wish this young man who moved his family from across the globe to Edmonton nothing but the best. I hope the charitable kid who would quietly feed the homeless and bought food and drinks for the attendant staff succeeds in the NHL somewhere else. I saw the best in this maligned winger. I haven’t apologized for that yet and I probably never will. Take that as a reason to rip me if you want. I’ll be fine.
We buried Yakupov’s Oiler career unceremoniously last night. The only grave marker we have is a third round pick in next year’s draft and the mound of fresh dirt his detractors will only visit to gloat about their victory over. Things could have been different but they weren’t. Things could have been better but they never will be. It’s over now. That’s the best we can say about this situation. It’s finally over.
Goodbye, Nail Yakupov. I hope your next home is kinder to you than this one was. I hope hockey becomes fun for you again.
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