As we inch slowly towards the beginning of the hockey season we
are more and more often thinking about the beginning of young Connor McDavid’s
NHL career. How are we going to protect him? Who will he live with? Who will he
play with? These are the questions on our minds right now. Everybody and
their dog has suggested McDavid should have Hall as his LW this fall. Fine. It’s
as good a suggestion as any other. But I’m going to suggest a RW who isn’t getting
that same kind of love, and at this point being dead serious about this makes me
some kind of radical. I think Nail Yakupov should be his right winger.
Yes, I think Nail Yakupov should be McDavid’s right winger.
And, dare I say it, I think he should be there because he’s going to help
McDavid offensively. I’ll read the comment section later to count how many
times I’m called an idiot.
But how is a player who managed to only put up 33 points
going to possibly help Connor McDavid offensively?
It is absolutely true that of all the first overall
picks the Oilers have, Nail Yakupov has delivered the least.
Taylor Hall is one of the best LWs on the planet. Nugent-Hopkins was the best
Oiler player last season and one of the best two-way players in the NHL still not
old enough to see Straight Outta Compton without an accompanying adult. Nail
Yakupov, on the other hand, took steps backwards after his rookie season and has
picked up a reputation as a poor defensive player (fair or otherwise).
The answer to the question of how he can help McDavid is
about the splits. It’s about what we know regarding Yakupov’s offensive
production away from coach Dallas Eakins and whether it’s reasonable to assume
that Todd McLellan can breathe offensive fire into this player.
Yak won the rookie scoring race in 2012-2013 with
31 points in 48 games. That’s a 53 point pace over an 82 game schedule.
Then Eakins was hired.
In 2013-2014 Yakupov’s offense plummeted to 24 points in 63
games, or a 31 point pace.
2014-2015 was a year in two halves for Nail Yakupov. He was
absolutely atrocious offensively to begin the year and stellar at the end. Although
Nelson took over as solo head coach in late December, I’m going to split
up the season from Oct-December and January-April just for ease.
Oct-Dec: 38GP, 4-5-9, 19 point pace over 82 games
Jan-April: 43GP, 10-14-24, 46 point pace over 82 games
That’s a massive difference and one that I think we should
avoid dismissing because of sample size. We know for a fact that Yakupov was
getting significantly more ice time with an offensively minded centreman and
the results were as expected for a player with his skill-set. Even within the second
split Yak finished stronger than he started, scoring 21 points in his final 31
At Yakupov’s highest point last season he was one of
Edmonton’s most dynamic attacking players. When he’s at his best (and that’s
the only way he’s going to earn a spot on McDavid’s right side) Yakupov is
capable of generating offense with his incredible shot and on the forecheck
with his physicality. His 97 hits last year (third highest among
forwards, highest among skilled forwards) are a testament to his willingness to
get his hands dirty. He also has a solid history of standing up for teammates
when they’re in trouble. That’s no small thing when we’re talking about who
should be playing with super rookie Connor McDavid.
What it comes down to for me is that Yakupov has been an
offensive producer for the Oilers as recently as last season when the shackles
were taken off of him. He proved with Roy that he could retrieve pucks from
behind the net and along the walls, and he’s not afraid to get physical. Edmonton
doesn’t want McDavid running into the corners. Edmonton doesn’t want someone on
the right side just to tag along or get out of the way.
Forgive me if I don’t buy into the idea that Teddy Purcell
should be McDavid’s RW just because he’s a veteran. He’s the safe choice, but I
don’t think for a second he’s the right choice. Don’t get me wrong, I think
there’s a very good chance that the new coaching staff prefers the safety of
Purcell on the RW to the unknown of Yakupov in that same slot. I just can’t
stand the idea of playing someone in a spot because he’s been around longer.
He wasn’t drafted first overall to play on the third
line every single year. Put Yak where he belongs, on McDavid’s right side. To
me, it’s the only choice.