The saying goes that a coach’s only currency with his players is ice time. I believe that to be true. I’m also of the mind how that currency is handed out by the guy in control of the money bag should reasonably reflect how any given player is performing.
It shouldn’t be given as a favor. It shouldn’t be handed out just because a player is such-and-such or so-and-so or because the player and his agent might sulk and get pissed off because, in their estimation, they aren’t getting enough. If that’s the case, too bad. Suck it up butter cup. Play better.
I’m a bit puzzled, then, with the way, and how often, Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins has been deploying right winger Nail Yakupov so far this season. While Eakins has more than once praised Yakupov for making an effort to round out his game and be more reliable defensively, the ice time Yakupov is getting in return doesn’t reflect what he’s saying.
Yakupov, 21, faces the Carolina Hurricanes tonight sitting 10th among Oiler forwards in time on ice per game at 12:52. He’s ninth in ESTOI per game at 10:54 and seventh in PPTOI per game at 1:57. He’s getting less ice time per game in his third season than he did as a rookie, 14:34, or last season, 14:19.
WORDS AND ACTIONS
“He’s come such a long way. There were times last year where there was maybe a misunderstanding of where he should be in the D zone,” Eakins said of Yakupov Oct. 3. “I have no qualms about him in our defensive zone this year.”
Added Eakins: “He’s learned a ton. He continues to ask questions. His relationship with our staff is amazing. I don’t think we have to worry too much about the amount of D zone starts Yak gets. He can play in his own end, he’s shown that through camp.”
From where I sit — it should be obvious from what I’ve written in the past I’m not the president of the Nail Yakupov Booster Club — that assessment doesn’t line up with decreased ice time for Yakupov over previous seasons through his first seven games.
Yes, Yakupov is still prone to mistakes. He’s a work in progress, not a first-line player. Yes, at times he’s ridden shotgun for rookie Leon Draisaitl, who is ninth in overall ice time at 12:55 per game, so that’s had an impact. Likewise, trying to find the most favorable zone starts for a given line, match-ups and circumstances in each game play into it, as Eakins has explained.
“My only thought going into the game is to win the hockey game,” Eakins said in a recent interview with Reid Wilkens of 630 CHED. “This is about our team. I know there’s a lot of chatter out there about individuals ice time, this is about our team.
“The team. The team. The team every time. You guys can talk about guy’s ice times. We’ve got guys that are improved this year and playing less, we’ve got guys that are improved and playing more. There are situational things that happen on the ice, you guys can read whatever you want into it. I’m not talking about a guy’s individual ice time, I’ll talk to you about our team.”
THE WAY I SEE IT
While his decreasing ice time this season might have turned into a soap opera – or another call from agent Igor Larionov — a year ago, Yakupov has framed the situation as well as you can reasonably expect. No sulking. He’s been upbeat while waiting for the next tap on the shoulder.
“Of course I’m worried about it and of course I want to play more,” Yakupov said. “I hope it’s just the first games and I’ll get more minutes. I’d like to play more. I don’t want to sit on the bench. I’d like to play more minutes and help my team, play good both ways. That’s why I worked hard in the summer, to be a good two-way forward.”
I’m not of the mind that Eakins “is screwing Yakupov over” as some hardcore Yak Backers and conspiracy theorists have suggested, but I’d like to see Yakupov rewarded for his efforts to round-out his game – remaining flaws and all – and the positive approach he’s taken so far.
For the good of the team and the player, be it Yakupov or anybody else, there has to be a connection between performance and ice time. Surely, in Yakupov’s case, Eakins can find an extra shift here or an added look on the power play there to bump his ice time up.
So far, we aren’t seeing it.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.