A Selfish Play?

Nail Yakupov’s resurgence in the second half of this
his third season has been a treat to watch. He’s playing more minutes,
he’s producing, and visually he just looks more dynamic. Even with his many
supporters (myself very much included) shouting about his accomplishments to
anyone that will listen AND his recent random act of kindness going viral, the
overall perception of the energetic young Russian outside of the market is
changing only sluggishly. He has a long way to go before he’ll be getting the
benefit of the doubt. One such example is the determination Neil Smith made on
last night’s broadcast that Nail Yakupov’s play was deficient in the lead up to
Edmonton’s first goal against Columbus.

Smith took no time in reaching the conclusion that Yakupov’s
play was selfish and reminded him of another frustrating Russian from his
memory, Alex Kovalev.

Is the Kovalev comparison fair?

Alex Kovalev was a brilliant player who finished his career
with 1029 points in 1316 games, but his name also carries negative
connotations. If NHL alumni were to play a word association game with “Kovalev” they
might come up with “Frustration” in consensus. Whenever I’ve heard anybody who
played with, coached, or managed Kovalev the same things get said. He was the
most talented player on the team, the greatest practice player ever born, and
yet even scoring 1000+ points in a 20 year career he left everybody wanting
more.

Yakupov being mentioned in the same breath as Kovalev just
doesn’t seem an apt comparison. I dare anyone who has watched Nail Yakupov play
to tell me with a straight face that they can think of a time when it seemed
like he was holding anything back. If Nail Yakupov has frustrated anyone
because of his lack of production, it’s because he was trying so hard to do
what was asked of him but just couldn’t get the job done. Even in the darkest
days in the middle of the Dead Yak Era, his commitment and effort were never
questioned.

No, I think the thing those two players have most in common
is their passport and the comparison really ends there.

But was it a selfish play?

Well, if you view it as one man taking on a well defended
space by himself then the conclusion is very appropriate. How many times has it
been ingrained into us that you never try to take on three or more defenders by
yourself? It’s a quick way to lose the puck and see it heading right back the
other direction.

So there you have it. Selfish play. Yak takes on three defenders but this time it works. 90% of the time it doesn’t. Lucky bounce but
overall Smith was correct.

That would be my analysis, if the game was 5v5 at the time.

But it wasn’t.

Viewed through the lens of the power play it’s quite a bit
different.

THE PLAY

As many PP goals do, this play starts with the Oilers in
full control behind their own net. Justin Schultz, at the end of his shift,
takes a moment for everybody to get in the right spot, then dishes the puck up
the right side of the ice to Matt Hendricks.

Nail Yakupov and Benoit Pouliot are swinging up the left
side of the ice while Derek Roy supports the middle. Yakupov immediately cuts
back towards the right side of the ice behind Hendricks who is carrying the
puck but with speed.

Ryan Johansen is tracking Hendricks, but turns his back just as Hendricks leaves the puck
for Yakupov. For a brief moment, Ryan Johansen continues to track Hendricks who
has cut inside but without the puck.

Nail Yakupov, who had been playing with lightning in his
boots all night leading up to this, sees open space and hits the jets. At the
37 second mark of the video you can see that the Blue Jackets are trying to
stand up at the Blueline. Ryan Johansen is about 6-7 feet away and parallel to
Yakupov while Jack Johnson is directly ahead trying to prevent a zone entry.

However, Yakupov’s speed (created by Johansen’s extremely
brief lapse) pushes Johnson back and Yakupov crosses the blueline untouched. Johnson
lifts to the outside giving up the inside and Johansen is now behind Yakupov.

Taking what was given to him, Yak moves to the inside which
draws Johnson back towards him and the other forward on the PK, Cam Atkinson,
is forced to take Yak as well, while Johansen desperately takes out Yak’s feet
with a last ditch effort to get the puck before one of Edmonton’s most dynamic
shooters unleashes on his backup goalie.

At the 39 second of the video the entire penalty killing
unit has collapsed around Yakupov but doesn’t have control of the puck. As he’s
falling down Yak pushes the puck to his left where Benoit Pouliot has been ignored
completely. Matt Hendricks is driving down the middle of the ice, ever so
nicely trapping Atkinson on the inside where he was forced to go when Yak beat
Johansen and Johnson.

Johansen has abandoned his side of the ice as Atkinson
couldn’t move towards Pouliot and Johnson is watching the play develop to the right
of his goaltender at the 40 second mark, blissfully unaware that Derek Roy has
quietly put himself in position to shoot on a yawning cage.

Pouliot sees that McElhinney is in good position to make a
stop if he were to shoot but that nobody has paid any attention to Roy at the
side of the net, and makes a heads up play to the open man.

Bob’s your uncle. Puck’s in the net.

SELFISH?

If that was 5v5 and Nail Yakupov tried to do it all himself
then Neil Smith would have been absolutely correct. It’s a low percentage play.
However, on the power play, Nail Yakupov supported the puck carrier, used speed
to back off the defense, took what was available, and, in doing so, completely
broke the structure of Columbus’ penalty kill.

Knowing that he was coming into the zone with numbers and
speed turns a low percentage play at even strength that can result in losing
possession and the puck going the other way into a play that breaks down the
order and structure needed to maintain a stable Penalty Kill. The key mistakes
were Ryan Johansen losing track of the puck carrier for a second and Jack
Johnson giving Yakupov the middle of the ice as his open lane.

Had it been even strength, and both of those players been in
the perfect position, and Yakupov STILL tried to cut to the middle of the ice
then I think the odds of the play being successful drop dramatically and, yes,
the play would have been selfish.

The key takeaway is that game states change everything. What
makes a play selfish 5v5 might be able to expose teams who are down a man 5v4.

The other takeaway, Alex Kovalev and Nail Yakupov are two
talented Russian hockey players. That’s really all they have in common though.

  • The 00:54-00:56 mark of the video really demonstrates how unselfish Yak is. The puck is coming right to the tape of Yakupov and he seems to either hear Roy behind him, or just knows he’s there and lifts his stick right as the puck is about to be his in the slot.

    He could have accepted the pass in the slot… instead he let it pass by and go to Roy. Unselfish, and very aware of his surroundings.

  • YFC Prez

    Talking heads need to get off Yakupov’s case. He is a young player still learning the pro game. He is the easy target of the most negative sports media in the country. He is low hanging fruit. Who rises to the top of any profession in 2-3 yrs?

    Why not acquire some balls Henderson and take on the real issues with this so-called organization, like ownership and management for example. What is this your hobby?

    Grow a pair.

  • DoubleDIon

    Just another ploy from Supportsnet to drive the value of an Oilers player down so one of the Eastern Canadian teams can swipe Yakupov. Yak has that drive and determination and sheer youthful exuberance that makes you wanna cheer for him. Eakins did everything in his power to kill his career and its nice to see him reemerge here after people started calling him Nail Daigle. I dont listen to the creeps at Supportsnet, they obviously want Yak in a Leafs, Sens or Canadiens uniform.

  • DoubleDIon

    I hope Sportsnet will be just as critical of Taylor Hall driving down wing and trying to crash the net with defensemen present, or sending a hard shot wide of the net and back out of the zone.

    There was a game a while back, possibly the Toronto game and Mike Johnson along with others were just completely bashing the team, so much so that I couldn’t even watch. Sure, they had a bad game but this is the national broadcaster. Sure there are plenty of games on the TV now but the broadcast quality is off the charts horrible. I can handle our local broadcast with Quinn, Principe and others but the TV has not been tuned in to hockey as much this year.

  • Chris.

    Fancy stats really went mainstream this year and are here to stay; but according to corsi the Oilers under Eakins were a much better team than the Flames.?..(Remember how the Oilers were going to turn the corner when the PDO corrected? Didn’t the number guys on Lowetide’s Radio program regularly predict that the Mighty Oil would surpass the Flames in December, January, February

    It’s been big fun for the MSM in most major NHL markets to poke fun at similar anomalies league wide (and there are plenty)… Is it just me, or does it seem like the stats community is always on the defensive?

  • camdog

    Yak is 21, in 2-3 years of proper non Eakins development we will all have a better idea what he is, at the moment most of the talk about Yak is conjecture…