OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

All the debate about the merits and lack of same pertaining to Nail Yakupov during his first three seasons in the NHL has been intriguing and funny and all kinds of things in-between, but it’s time to get past all that and find out if and where Yakupov fits with the Edmonton Oilers.

Somewhere in between the die-hard Yak City folks, those who think he’s a sure-fire 35-goal man who has been largely miss-cast and unappreciated up until now, and fans who think Yakupov sucks and is destined to be a first-overall flop, there’s probably a middle ground where the still-young winger will end up when all the chin-wagging is done.

Still a couple weeks short of celebrating his 22nd birthday, it looks to me like a clean slate in the form of a new coach and GM in Todd McLellan and Pete Chiarelli will provide Yakupov a shining opportunity to prove what part, if any, he’ll play with the Oilers moving forward.

I can’t wait to see it and I’m guessing you can’t either. Yakupov will set out to set things straight, not in the top-six slot some people wanted for him with Connor McDavid or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but on what’s essentially the third line with Anton Lander and Leon Draisaitl, at least for now. I’d suggest he make the most of it.

GET IT DONE

Given the time he lost under the failed tenure of Dallas Eakins, I’m a bit hesitant to frame this season as put-up-or-shut-up time for Yakupov, but with 192 NHL games in the books, it most certainly is important that he use that clean slate to make a favorable impression on McLellan and Chiarelli.

Yakupov’s story we know. Taken first overall in 2012, Yakupov finished his rookie season on a hot streak under Ralph Krueger. Then came Eakins, who didn’t find a happy fit with Yakupov or many of the young Oilers, for that matter. Along came Todd Nelson, and Yakupov got rolling again, scoring 20 points in his final 28 games last season. Now, McLellan is the man.

“The interesting line for me is that Draisaitl, Lander, Yakupov line,” said McLellan as training camp opened. “If we can get them gelling and playing the right way, they can be very dangerous. That’s a goal of ours anyway.”

“Playing the right way.” Given Yakupov’s all-over-the-place style, he has been a difficult fit during his time with the Oilers. Sorry, Yak City, it’s true. He’s a unique player, not a garden-variety up and down the wall kind of guy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a challenge when you’re drawing lines up on the white board.

Of course, Yak City would have been happier had their man been matched up with McDavid or Nugent-Hopkins to start camp – bite your tongues off now if you’re already moaning about him getting screwed over again – but it’s not like he’s being buried with a couple of plugs in Lander and Draisaitl and he’ll get some time on the power play.

Show the new coach what you can do, kid.

THE KLEFBOM DEAL

There’s been a fair amount of discussion about the seven-year contract extension worth $29.16 million signed by Oscar Klefbom since TSN’s Ryan Rishaug broke the story, but the opinion that matters is that of Chiarelli, who gave his take today.

“He’s a big, strong kid. He skates well, he moves the puck well, he defends well,” Chiarelli said. “I saw him play in the Worlds and at that high level, he’s a very good player. I know he’s only had 70-something games in the NHL but there’s a lot to like about him, on both sides of the puck.”

The grabber, and a big reason for why the Oilers dropped that kind of dough on Klefbom after just 77 games in the NHL, is where the Oilers project him.

“He’s a top-four D and he’s going to be a top-two D at some point,” said Chiarelli. “He plays a real responsible game and he moves the puck. We project on him but we’re fairly confident on it.”

In recent years I’ve changed my philosophy on handing young and relatively unproven players big contracts. I used to be a wait-and-see guy. Almost $30 million for a guy with less than 80 games in the NHL? No way. While I still believe handing a youngster that much money and term can be tricky, there is no blanket approach that’s best. Each case on its merits.

The way I see it, Klefbom, who was signing autographs today after inking that big deal, will be a second-pairing guy for the next decade even if he doesn’t get any better than he is now. That’s worth $4 million a season. If Klefbom becomes the top-two guy Chiarelli thinks he will be, the back-end of this deal will look like a bargain.

WHILE I’M AT IT

Megaphone

Anybody who has been visiting this site for more than a couple of years knows I considered Ryan Whitney a damn good player, but the ankle and foot issues that plagued him the last several years officially put an end to his career today.

  • At age 32 after tallying 259 points in 481 NHL games, the big blueliner from Boston announced his retirement via Twitter. Whitney played 139 games over parts of four seasons with the Oilers and had 71 points, including 27 in 35 games in 2010-11, before he tore up an ankle – an injury that was the beginning of the end.

    The Oilers gave up a lot to get Whitney – talented Lubomir Visnovsky – in a deal I liked straight up at the time, but Whitney never again came close to playing a full season after the injury and when he did play his mobility was severely restricted.

  • Saddened to hear of the death of former Oiler draft pick Todd Ewen at the age of just 49 Saturday. Ewen, widely known as a tough guy over a career that spanned 518 games in St. Louis, Montreal, Anaheim and San Jose, took his own life.

    Ewen was a bright, young man who authored children’s books and coached minor and college hockey in the St. Louis area after retiring. I met Todd in 1983-84 when he was playing with the New Westminster Bruins. Former Oiler Bill Ranford was on that team. So was Pokey Reddick, Craig Berube and Cliff Ronning. A tragic end. RIP.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.

  • S cottV

    Lander isn’t a proven high end 3rd line center. May get there but will take some time.

    LD will take time to make the adjustment to play on the wing.

    Mix this with an all over the place Yak and I don’t think it will stand up vs the better 3rd lines in the conference.

    They will give up more than they get – too often.

  • freelancer

    I know McLellan believes in pairs, I feel the Yak Lander Draisaitl line will be a nice combo when they can match up against a weaker lines at home, but they would be the obvious choice for an opponent to send their top guys out when we play away.

    Down the road, I think the goal needs to be to find another top 6, more two way winger. A guy who may only be a 40-50 point player but is strong on defence.

    • NJ

      You think that a coach in the NHL is gonna send out his top line against our third leaving our first and second lines to feast on his second and third?

      I agree that if he can swing it temporarily that might be okay, but he’s probably looking to match up against the McDavid line and leave the Nuge line against his defensive line.

      I suppose we will see. The facts are we have no idea if Drai makes it out of training camp and the 9 game NHL cutoff. Time will tell! I’m excited regardless.

      • freelancer

        Not in all scenarios no but here’s an example. The Draisaitl-Lander-Yak line is playing in Anaheim. They ice the puck. How do you feel about say Hagelin-Getzlaf-Perry going up against them in our defensive zone.

        I agree that most teams will be focused on the top two lines but on the road when the opposition gets the last change I’m worried about that line bleeding goals. Lander looks to be becoming a solid two way guy and Draisaitl has the size for it but isn’t on overly physical player (that we’ve seen yet) and I’m rooting for him but Yak still terrifies me in our D zone.

        Just quick of Draisaitl, looking at how McLellan is setting things up I don’t really see a scenario in which Draisaitl gets sent down. Originally I was expecting Korp to get the bump on that line but it seems McLellan likes him on a checking 4th line.

  • YFC Prez

    Yakupov is pure raw athletic talent.

    I look at Hall and Nuge and see a lot of skill but also a lot of superior hockey sense and vision compared to most players. I look at Eberle and see craftiness and confidence. Yakupov has comparable skill, and maybe even a better shot than all of them, but doesn’t have the hockey IQ of his draft peers.

    Hockey sense can be taught, can be learned.

    Natural talent is something you’re born with.

    I hope the new Oilers staff, from management to coaching, realizes this. If you’re to trust Eastern Hockey media, the fault lies with a lazy, unmotivated, uncoachable, self-entitled Russian named Yakupov…which anyone who’s watched Oil Change, practices, or games know is a complete fabrication. So here’s hoping Chiarelli realizes what he has here, and that he’s dismissed garbage pieces from the likes of Darren Dreger.