The relationship between 2012 first overall pick Nail Yakupov and Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins is one that’s been much written about. From the outside, we don’t actually know much about the dynamic, but it’s a critical one if Edmonton is to get the most out of the talented sniper who struggled so badly in 2013-14.
Judging from what was said on the first day of training camp, it’s a relationship that has improved greatly with communication and familiarity.
The manners of Yakupov and Eakins are a study in contrasts. The young winger’s availability was of the damn the torpedoes variety; he kept some things to himself but was excited and energetic and seemed not too worried about being open with the press. The coach went on at length, at times bluntly, but was clearly being careful in what he said; he even noted that he’d learned in the last year to talk less with the press. But for all the differences in style, the substance from the two was remarkably similar.
One of the questions for Eakins was what his message for Yakupov was entering training camp. He denied that he had one, having taken care of such matters over the summer, and said that getting mental and physical rest in the offseason were key for the player:
I spoke to him enough times this summer that there is no message now. He’s excited to come in. He’s had a really good summer, first of rest for his body; he was banged up a fair bit last year, things that he tried to play through that we greatly respect him for. I think he got some mental rest. It was a tough season, I think there were too high of expectations put on this player after his first year shooting at such a high percentage in that shortened season. He’s ready to go… There’s no message to Nail. I’ve covered a number of things off with him; the biggest thing for me with Nail is that he’s walking in with a smile on his face. I think he learned a lot about himself, the game, last season and it’s going to pay off for him big time.
It’s easy to forget now, but one of the things Eakins came to Edmonton with was a reputation for being able to connect with his players on an individual level. He talked at some length about the importance of coaching individuals rather than a group, and his former charges with the Toronto Marlies raved about his ability to connect with them one-on-one.
I thought of that when I heard Eakins talk about the importance of Yakupov walking in with a smile on his face. Yakupov’s exuberance and emotion were obvious as a rookie but were less in evidence during a difficult season; much of that is doubtless effect but one wonders to what degree attitude was also cause. I’m probably reading too much into it, but Eakins’ comment struck me as both a nod to the importance of keeping Yakupov excited to play the game and a willingness to try and keep that attitude in place.
Yakupov’s English is improved, but at times it’s still not entirely clear what exactly he means with his wording. But whatever confusion there might be in specific instances, there was no misunderstanding the general thrust of his comments when he was asked how often he’d spoken with Eakins in the offseason:
Three for sure. He called me when I was on vacation, actually. I was really surprised; I was happy to see his call and we had a really good conversation. Especially when I got here I got a message from him again, and then not for a month, we talked to him again and then I just saw him again. We spent more time on the phone than to see each other as last year. It’s a good thing; we getting close to our coaching staff and we have new coaches too. It seems much different than last year and much better. I’m just happy to see Dallas all the time and not feel any pressure when you talk to him, when you have conversations… I feel much better to have a conversation now with Dallas and I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think you’ve got to be scared about anything; you’ve just got to trust this guy and try and follow the system and everything they say and just play the game.
The tacit acknowledgement in those words is that last season there were times when Yakupov didn’t feel comfortable talking with Eakins, times when he felt he was under pressure. But it seems that increased familiarity has eased that, and it’s hard not to credit Eakins for taking the initiative to call Yakupov over the summer and break down whatever barriers existed between coach and player.
5’11”, 197 pounds
In that same interview, Yakupov said that he’d gotten bigger over the summer.
“I gain big, actually,” he said. “My weight is much bigger than last time but it’s not fat it’s all about muscles. My body fat actually is pretty well, too; I just took it.”
Yakupov is now listed at 5’11”, 197 pounds after spending last year listed in the 180-something range (if memory serves, NHL.com had him at 189 pounds). That’s a lot of muscle for a sub-6’ forward, but Yakupov plays a bullish style of game and the extra weight shouldn’t hurt in that department.
As always, caveats about ‘he’s in the best shape of his life’ reports apply. But it’s another positive note for a player who seems to be both happy and healthy after a nasty 2013-14 campaign.