While Nail Yakupov wrapped up his rookie season as a member of the Edmonton Oilers with a bang, scoring six goals in the team’s final three games of 2012-13, he went out with a whimper as a sophomore, sidelined by an injury to end a difficult 2013-14 campaign.
Yakupov’s torrid final few games as a rookie under coach Ralph Krueger saw him finish the season with 17-14-31 in 48 games, tying the former Sarnia Sting sniper for the NHL scoring lead in points among freshmen.
In contrast, Yakupov finished last season under rookie coach Dallas Eakins on the shelf with a foot injury, leaving him with just 11-13-24 in 63 games, a marked step back for the right winger from Nizhnekamsk.
Yakupov critics talked about how his rookie campaign was something of an illusion, his stats inflated by an unsustainable shooting percentage and that hot finish. Yakupov’s backers, meanwhile, pointed to how, when and with whom he was used by Eakins as the reason for his drop off in production.
So, what to expect in 2014-15?
Statistically speaking, Yakupov’s ice time under Eakins was 14:19 per game, slightly off the 14:34 he averaged under Krueger. His shooting percentage dropped from 21 per cent to nine per cent under Eakins even though he shot at a slightly higher rate – he went from 17 goals on 81 shots to 11 on 122. His plus-minus went from minus-4 to minus-33.
Noteworthy in that, framed by what was perceived as a sometimes strained relationship with Eakins, was that Yakupov’s power play time dropped from 2:28 per game to 2:10. He was made a healthy scratch by Eakins. He often found himself playing alongside bottom-six linemates.
That sparked plenty of debate. Did Eakins give Yakupov every chance to succeed in terms of the situations he was used in and the linemates he was deployed with? Well, no. Did Yakupov earn those opportunities? Well, no. Did Yakupov and Eakins both contribute to what we saw? Yes.
Eakins didn’t always like what he saw from Yakupov, and there was plenty not to like. Too many defensive lapses. Too many times when he didn’t use his linemates. Eakins used the only currency at his disposal, ice time, to get that message across. It was obvious that sometimes didn’t sit well with Yakupov, notably back-to-back healthy scratches.
While I don’t think Yakupov, any player for that matter, should simply be handed prime ice time without earning it, my impression from afar was that Eakins was occasionally heavy-handed in the lessons he attempted to teach. It was equally perplexing to see Yakupov play, it seemed, without a clue.
“With Nail, it was like with a lot of our guys. We had to come in this year and hit the reset button,” Eakins said in April. “Hitting that reset button was very hard on Nail. He’d been allowed to just go out and play by his coaches in junior and everyone before.
“We could continue to do that. Or we could start to build the foundation of how we’re going to play as a team and what that means to each individual, so that we can have success in the playoffs and turn into one of these top-level teams.
“You can’t just play the individual game. And it wasn’t just Nail. We had a whole bunch of that going on here and we had to reset it and there’s been pain and suffering doing it. But I think our team is much better for it now.”
THE WAY I SEE IT
When I watch Yakupov, even allowing for the expected bumps along the way you get with a young player, I see a talented kid who has a long way to go to grasp systems and the importance of team concept. I’m not convinced, yet, he accepts he has to change his approach at the NHL level. He must.
That said, patience – Oiler fans have come to hate that word – by Eakins is also an absolute must in this situation. Eakins has to make his expectations of Yakupov clear and make sure nothing is lost in the translation. It’ll take collaboration. It’ll mean give and take on both sides.
I hope Eakins and Yakupov have that conversation. I hope they get on the same page. Maybe they already have. Until that happens, we won’t see the best of Yakupov.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.