It’s about time the Edmonton Oilers took a serious look at how they draft and develop players even if it might be a case of better late than never when it comes to Nail Yakupov.
While the Oilers are taking steps to clean up the mess they’ve made in both areas – they’ve promoted Bob Green but have yet to announce it or provide specifics about his duties – Yakupov, taken first overall by Edmonton in the 2012 Entry Draft, is teetering on the brink of becoming a bust just past the 150-game mark of his NHL career.
If it plays out that way, and I suspect it will given how Yakupov has struggled and regressed since a decent rookie season in 2012-13, it’ll not only be a failure by the player but a failure by Edmonton’s scouting staff and player development, or lack of same.
Drafted from Sarnia as a one-trick pony, that trick being the ability to put points on the board, Yakupov, 21, is failing miserably. After scoring 17 goals in 48 games as a rookie, he fell off in 2013-14, tallying 11-13-24 in 63 games. Through 41 games this season, Yakupov has scored 4-5-9. He has one goal and one assist in his last 25 games.
Instead of a blue-chipper coming out of his entry level contract commanding the kind of money Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle did, Yakupov is already a reclamation project with the B-word hanging in the air heading into the second half of his third season.
Lots of blame to go around.
HERE AND NOW
While I’ve written many times about not liking Yakupov’s game, I never saw this kind of stretch coming. Two points in his last 25 games? Not many fans, notably the Yak City Mob that formed after he lit things up in the final three games of his rookie season, did. “Yak’s gonna be a 35-goal guy . . . blah, blah, blah.” You can look it up. It’s pretty quiet in that camp now.
Flaws and all, Yakupov’s ace-in-the-hole, the reason an organization might look the other way regarding his shortcomings, was supposed to be his ability to produce points. He wasn’t drafted to be Boyd Gordon or Matt Hendricks, who both have more goals than him right now. He was drafted to be dynamic, to be a game-breaker. We saw flashes as a rookie. That’s gone.
“His first year in the league, he’d come late on plays and he could really shoot,” an NHL pro scout from another organization told Jim Matheson of the Journal this week. “I’m not seeing any shots, and there’s just nothing happening. To me, he looks like he has no confidence at all with the puck.”
“Some of the plays he’s making, I wonder about his hockey sense,” said another pro scout, raising a more concerning issue than a lack of confidence or shots – a lack of hockey IQ, which is not a new question when it comes to Yakupov. Members of the Oiler scouting staff must have had questions about that before the draft. If they didn’t, they missed an obvious red flag. Yet Edmonton drafted him (some say at the urging of owner Daryl Katz).
THE BLAME GAME
There’s been plenty of debate about Yakupov since the minute he was drafted and I’m not going to rehash all of it again. Suffice to say, Yak backers insist he hasn’t had a fair shake – not enough ice time, the wrong linemates, not enough power-play time. I buy some of it. Not all.
Yakupov is already on his third coach, starting with Ralph Krueger then moving to Dallas Eakins and now interim man Todd Nelson. That lack of continuity hasn’t helped. He took a huge step back under Eakins in his first season behind the bench and has not recovered.
As far as Yakupov’s linemates, not getting the chance to play with “a real NHL centre,” it just isn’t so. You might want to look up how much ice time Yakupov got with Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner in his first two seasons. Jason Gregor brought those numbers up on his show yesterday. Did Yakupov do enough with the looks his got in the top-six? On it goes . . .
Should Yakupov have seen some time in the minors along the way? I think so, but that’s not an option now because he has to clear waivers. Somebody would take a chance on him. It could be argued Yakupov should have been returned for another year in the OHL after his draft, but agent Igor Larionov would have screamed like hell about that and the Oilers were all-too-happy to insert another first overall pick into the line-up, ready or not.
It matters not now. Here we are.
I said it last week and I’ll say it again – I’d like to see Yakupov get every opportunity to turn things around in the second half of this season. There is no upside, no matter where you think the blame lays, to see the kid fail and to send him away for nothing or next to it.
Give Yakupov the best possible linemates – he’ll line up against Chicago tonight with Benoit Pouliot and Derek Roy – and play the wheels off him on the power play. Put Yakupov in the best position to succeed, to turn things around. Maybe he does. Maybe he doesn’t. Leave no stone unturned.
If Yakupov gets that opportunity and does nothing with it, then there’s obviously another conversation to be had moving forward. Essentially, with 152 games in the books, it comes down to that for Yakupov – reversal of fortune or bust.
Looking at the NHL Entry Draft from 1979 to 2012, when Yakupov was selected, there have only been a handful of players who were taken first overall you could deem flat-out busts in that 34-year period.
- Doug Wickenheiser, 1980. Montreal fans wanted Denis Savard, but the Habs took Wickenheiser. Dealt to St. Louis after four seasons, the former Regina Pats star played 556 NHL games, scoring 111-165-276. Montreal took him ahead of Savard, Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy.
- Gord Kluzak, 1982. Big defenseman taken by Boston from the Billings Bighorns was limited to just 299 games, scoring 25-98-123, by knee injuries and was retired by the age of 27. Bruins took Kluzak ahead of Brian Bellows, Scott Stevens and Phil Housley.
- Brian Lawton, 1983. Taken by Minnesota, Lawton played 483 NHL games, scoring 112-154-266. Drafted ahead of Pat LaFontaine, Steve Yzerman and Cam Neely.
- Alexandre Daigle, 1993. Taken by Ottawa, Daigle had three seasons of 51 points, including his rookie campaign, and played 616 NHL games, scoring 129-198-327. Was an Oiler on paper for one day after being acquired from Philadelphia and traded to Tampa Bay for Alex Selivanov on Jan. 29, 1999. Drafted ahead of Chris Pronger, Paul Kariya and Jason Arnott.
- Patrik Stefan, 1999. Taken by the Atlanta Thrashers, Stefan never had more than 40 points in a season, finishing with 64-124-188 in 455 NHL games. Taken ahead of Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.