When a team uses the first overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft to take a player, it goes without saying that it’s in the best interests of that team to do everything reasonably possible to ensure the player develops, succeeds and thrives.
Getting the best result takes time and patience. Ideally, it requires that the player be brought along at a pace that best suits him. Just as important, the player has to be used with linemates and put in situations that maximize the chances of success within the team concept.
Save for the very rare player who is essentially plug-and-play, who finds a way to excel no matter what, it’s a challenge at the best of times. Trying to find that fit while putting together a new line-up, making a whole bunch of pieces fit, compounds the challenge – develop the player and build a team.
That’s the task facing Edmonton Oilers’ coach Dallas Eakins right now with right winger Nail Yakupov, who is unquestionably talented but still trying to grasp the concept of playing within a team structure and find a fit with linemates as he begins his third NHL season.
With the 2014-15 season fast approaching and roster decisions still to be made, my take is that deciding what to do with Yakupov is causing Eakins to toss and turn more at night than anything else on his plate as he begins his second season behind Edmonton’s bench.
What about Nail?
I got the ball rolling on the topic of Yakupov last night with the following tweet after a 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks at Rexall Place:
Would have no problem with Joensuu or Pinizzotto as 4th line RW and other as 13th forward. Far bigger question: where does Yakupov fit?
— Robin Brownlee (@Robin_Brownlee) October 3, 2014
— David Staples (@dstaples) October 3, 2014
— Matt Henderson (@Archaeologuy) October 3, 2014
@Robin_Brownlee not sure how this a big question. Eberle, Yakupov and Purcell
— Chad Gaida (@OilersRNH93) October 3, 2014
Staples doesn’t see Yakupov fitting with Hall and RNH, preferring Mark Arcobello and Benoit Pouliot as linemates. Henderson sees him as the team’s top right winger, period, even though he had nothing going with Hall and RNH against the Canucks.
Nonsense offered up included somebody suggesting “The AHL,” ignoring the likelihood that even the suggestion of such a move would have agent Igor Larionov demanding a trade. Somebody suggested a trade to Columbus for unsigned Ryan Johansen. On and on . . .
FINDING THE FIT
Yakupov is unique. His first instinct is to create offence, to go on the attack. Lacking top-end speed, he creates space by dashing and darting to open ice, wherever it might be. He has a booming shot. He doesn’t back down from contact and isn’t shy about blowing up an opponent from time to time. He’ll take it to the net. There’s a lot to like about Yakupov’s game.
That said, Yakupov is profoundly challenged when it comes to playing within the team concept and utilizing his linemates. He’s more of a rover than a right winger. Figuring out where he’s going to be at any given time is a challenge. He’s too busy. Too frenetic. Staples described him last night as “a soloist,” comparing him to Ales Hemsky.
Defensively, Yakupov is a work in progress, as many young players are. He has talked about improving his defensive awareness and there’s no reason to doubt his commitment to that. Eakins said last night he’s seen improvement in that aspect of Yakupov’s game.
Eakins and Yakupov had significant difficulty getting on the same page last season. Both contributed to that by being stubborn. The details we’ve talked about more than once. To their credit, Yakupov and Eakins talked more than once this off-season and made overtures to ensure they began this season with a clean slate and a better understanding of each other.
HERE AND NOW
So, the question remains: where does Yakupov fit? Should Eakins roll him out with Hall and RNH again hoping for chemistry to develop, bumping Eberle to the second line with Leon Draisaitl and David Perron?
Should Eakins play Yakupov with Perron and Draisaitl on the second line, rolling the dice that they’ll create more than they allow defensively? Maybe a passer like Draisaitl is exactly what Yakupov needs. Then again, maybe they get eaten alive in their own end. Third line? Does Eakins get roasted for “not giving the kid a chance” if he does that?
Eakins has a fine line to walk. Yes, he needs to be diligent in trying to find the best circumstances for Yakupov. At the same time, he can’t turn his lines upside down, putting what’s best for one player ahead of what’s best for the team. Yakupov has to meet Eakins halfway. He has to try to become a better fit for linemates he’s given. He has to adjust his approach.
This can work. I’m just not confident it will.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.