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
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
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
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
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.
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.