Nail Yakupov: Possession Positive

Few people can divide a room in Oil country the way Nail
Yakupov can. The former 1st Overall pick has been a lightning rod
for criticism since he arrived in Edmonton and that hasn’t changed one bit. He’s
earned a reputation as a weak defensive player and that’s been supported by
number as well as by eye. Well, that is, it has up until this year.

Unlike all the other high profile picks whose defensive
deficiencies were ignored and whose minutes were padded, Yak has had a
different experience with the Oilers. Yak has been largely played on the 3rd
line and asked to prove he can play a 200 foot game before earning more ice.

He lead the Oilers in goal scoring in his rookie year. He
started the next on the 3rd line. His relationship with Eakins
boiled to a point where it seemed a trade request was going to be imminent. The
Oilers moved on from Eakins and Yak started to produce again under Nelson, but
he’s always a misstep away from playing on the 3rd line or lower.

This season has been interesting, to say the least, for Nail
Yakupov. He started the season on a line with Korpikoski and Lander, but that
was short lived. The much anticipated McDavid-Hall duo wasn’t getting the job
done the way we all thought it would in our heads and McLellan needed to try
something different. He went with Pouliot-McDavid-Yakupov and lightning got
caught in the bottle.

To my eye, Yakupov came into the year with a new focus on
playing in his own zone and moving the puck through the neutral zone. He didn’t
turn into Patrice Bergeron by any means, but he is back-checking more effectively
than we’ve seen in the past. He came to the NHL based on his skills at the
other end of the rink, however it looks like he’s figuring out that in the NHL
you have to know how to play in your own end in order to even get to the other.

THE NUMBERS

Naturally I don’t want to rely on only my own observations
with regards to Yakupov’s improved play. The facts are that after this many
years in the NHL, Yak has developed a reputation that is going to need more
than my word that he looks better to overcome. I mean, after every game I have
people finding me to tell me how terrible number 10 was even if he was the 1st
star. It’s a bizarre world.

What isn’t bizarre is how Nail Yakupov’s shot attempt
statistics have contributed to his bad reputation. The eyeball test crowd who
concluded that the Russian winger was lacking can take heart in knowing that
the underlying metrics supported their conclusions. Yak had abysmal possession
metrics for his first several seasons.

However, the metrics are telling a very different story in
2015-2016. I think it’s worth taking a look at.

Yak CF

Here is Nail Yakupov’s Corsi For percentage through his NHL
career. We can see incremental growth through his first three seasons, but he’s
well below anything resembling positive. This year he’s a positive player for
first time in his career. That is to say that when he’s on the ice the Oilers
are spending more time creating shot attempts than they are defending against
them for the first time in his career.

Yak CF2

The image above is Yakupov’s Corsi For per 60 minutes and
Corsi Against per 60 minutes separated from each other so we can see how they’ve
related to each other over the years. Yakupov’s has hovered around 60 shot
attempts against per 60 minutes for the majority of his career while averaging
in the high 40’s in shot attempts for. That’s not good enough.

This year we finally see Yak with significantly improved
shot attempt suppression while generating more than he ever has before. It is
such a drastic change that it warrants attention. Since he returned from injury
he has performed particularly well, even though he’s been relegated to the 3rd
or 4th lines to start the games. He has been Edmonton’s top forward
by Corsi percentage in 4 of his last 5 games!

Looking at his With Or Without You numbers, it doesn’t appear
as though Yak’s new possession performance is being driven by anything obvious.
Yak’s most common linemate has been Benoit Pouliot. Together they have a 49.9%
CF, apart Yakupov has 54.8% CF and Pouliot has 50.3% CF. The second most common
linemate has been McDavid. Together they have a 53% CF, apart Yakupov has 51.3%
CF and McDavid has 46% CF.

In fact, every skater who has played with Yakupov has a
lower Corsi percentage without Yak than Yak has without them except for
Davidson and the trio of Hall-Draisaitl-Purcell. If it isn’t Yakupov simply
playing the most responsible hockey of his life then the answer just isn’t obvious
to me.

There is something different happening when Nail Yakupov is
on the ice for the Oilers that hasn’t been happening in the past. The team is
spending more time attacking than they are defending for the first time in his
NHL career. Edmonton isn’t getting taken out to the wood-chipper when Yak takes
his shifts. On top of that, it doesn’t look like his success is directly attributable
to Connor McDavid or any other player.

Is that enough to change his reputation? No, probably not.
But we should keep an eye on these metrics and keep them in mind when pundits
talk about his defensive woes. As much as this might be a flash in the pan, it
could also be a corner turned. Either way, Yakupov deserves recognition for the
positive things he’s done so far.

All numbers courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com

  • Van isl Oiler

    I like Yakupov. I didn’t his first couple years, but I have the last couple. He has worked hard to improve. Attitude goes a long way for me and the fact that he butted heads with Eakins was a good thing. He recognized he had a bad coach in Eakins immediately. It wasn’t the message Eakins was trying to get through to Yakupov about defensive responsibility that wasn’t sound, it was how it was delivered. As a young kid, Yakupov saw through the arrogant jerk that his coach was and got that message. Eakins almost ruined this player in my opinion. I didn’t need this article, as much as I liked reading it, to tell me Yakupov has steadily gotten better. I have seen his name thrown around in trade suggestions as some throw in bargaining chip. That is a an under evaluation. If I’m another NHL Gm and his name gets tossed in on a deal that way, I’m scooping him up. I think he will continue to improve and could be along side McDavid on that first line before too long. Barring any more officials taking him out. Good for you Nail, you have overcome, inspite of the organization you play for. Keep up the good work.

  • Butters

    now only hoping the Oilers GM is seeing these analytic’s to not give up on Yak just yet. Would have love to have this year that every Oiler stays healthy to see what the team is really all about, yet instead we’ve had 1-2 of our top 6 F’s and D out at the same time.

    What this season has shown so far, is there still isn’t a lot of depth in the organization yet when the top 6 are out of the lineup, and thats where its imperative a 3rd line scoring group steps up to fill in the top 6 when injuries occur.

    I like the article earlier that sold a top 9 scoring and bottom 3 were PK and defensive pillars. Team toughness doesn’t need to be a checking line, it needs to be in the players personalities, and there are lots of examples all around the league of guys who have skill and grit, we have just chosen all skill and no grit for the last 2 decades under Kevin Lowe’s watch.

    Hoping the big bad ex Bruin and his chronie’s of scouts will change this philosophy of soft gel pads who skate exquisitely but explode under physical pressure and get some big farm boys who can skate and play hard hockey and drive the nets, win the battles in the corners, and leave it all out on the ice. goals will come with hard hockey and skill to play at that level should be a necessity to make it to the NHL, if you can’t skate at the NHL level you don’t play at the NHL level. But your grit and determination to battle every game should be what gives you that chance and earn a roster spot.

    Use the farm system, educate all new draft picks that they’re expected to get a minimum of 100 AHL games under their belt before their first kick at the can at the NHL, they need to earn their callup, and setting that expectation early allows these kids to work towards something. The best will rise to the top. Even if the best don’t need 100 games (McDavid, Draisaitl, Nurse, etc).

    Fundamentals of development needs to change drastically as well as expectations, and expectations for Yak at the start of his career were very lack luster, so its super exciting to watch him continue to work his ass off to play on this team, and sure hope the media and the fans start to respect that, because he easily could have turned into Drouin…..

  • Dan 1919

    The criticism that Yak takes from the fans and the media is something that most of his teammates are guilty of. Why is there never articles and criticism about them? It appears this type of article has been written few times a year about Yak, yet never one about he core-and their efforts and shortcomings.
    Anyone know why?

    • Dwayne Roloson 35

      People really like to criticise Russians and keep them on a short leash. Really, we should be giving Russian players a bit more slack for changing continents, leaving their friends, leaving their family, learning a new language and just being in a totally new culture.

  • S cottV

    The problem with Yak has always seemed like he struggles with putting it all together. He has the shot metrics now but now how do we get him chances to unleash his shot.

    I am excited for when McDavid comes back, because we might actually get two players back. One is McDavid and the other is the player Yakupov can actually be when he just needs to pull the trigger as soon as he gets in the attack zone.

  • Serious Gord

    Oil perception of Yak’s has never taken into consideration the following:

    1) He was drafted first. Not his fault. That position comes with substantial expectation that he has not yet met. That doesn’t make him a bad hockey player, he just doesn’t meet the expectations of a number one pick.
    2) He is 22 years old. What were the world’s expectations of you when you were 19 or 20 years old?
    3) New culture and new language
    4) New team with a revolving door coaching staff, each with new schemes, and playing with new line mates every second week.

    Again, if he was drafted in the second round we would be delighted with how he has developed but because the Oilers made the decision to draft him first overall he is a bum. I don’t think he will ever develop into a first line player but I think he might be a second line player and certainly a solid third line player over the course of his career. 2012 was a poor draft year – Griffin Reinhart went 4th.

    • For Pete's Sake!

      I agree with this statement. Yak is worth what they’re paying him.

      But my question is, why doesn’t Eberle ever get the kind of criticism Yak and Hall get?

      As far as I can see Hall and Yak are at least trying to get involved and win games for their team most of the time. They both work hard and play with passion.

      Eberle on the other hand. Buttersoft, pure perimeter, will not go to the difficult scoring zones in front of the opposition’s net, never helps out his defensemen in their own zone and seems absolutely passionless.

      The way Eberle’s playing this year, he’s not even worth 2 mil, let alone 6 per year.

      I wish they’d trade him. I can barely stand to watch him anymore.

  • camdog

    Wow do you ever have a man crush on yaks. It’s time to take the blinders off. He is not a team player, as he always try’s to dangle through 5 guys while his teammates sit there. He does not make his teammates better. He also fails to hit the net or wiffs on most his shots…. He is trade bait….. Move on henders and talk about a good player….

  • Yak would be deadly in the playoffs. In the playoffs its not about skill anymore. The guys who show the most heart will take you on a deep run(eg. Pisani). Yak also shows his pride for this city(a player actually loves Edmonton??) by doing things like supporting our Esks during their grey cup run.

  • For Pete's Sake!

    Great article, I think the key is to not put Yak on a #1 Overall pedestal and say “Hey, he’s not scoring like Hall, Tavares or Stamkos, he sucks!”

    He’s his own player and it’s hard to dispute the argument that he was #1 in a weak draft class – accept it and move on. He’s only in his 4th year and he still has great potential to be a top 6 winger playing a more complimentary role. Benoit Pouliot was a 4th overall who was labeled a minor bust and was shipped around a lot, look at him now in his prime. Some players take longer to mature at the NHL level, Yak plays with more heart than anyone except Hendricks – he’s going to have a long NHL career in my opinion. Hope it’s with the Oilers.

  • Mike Modano's Dog

    Honestly the only reason Yak is perceived the way he is, is because he’s Russian.

    Guy plays with passion. He is always giving it his all. But because he doesn’t produce on the third line with pluggers he’s seen as a failure.

    How many games have you seen Hall Eberle or Nuge on the third line and consistently producing points. Everyone makes it sound like Yak should be turning checkers into top scorers or else he’s not making players around him better like a first overall pick should.

    He hasn’t lived up to his full potential yet, but, he has never been consistently gifted top minutes like the others before him were. He was never treated with the same caution and respect those guys were.

    The past 5 years and this one I’ve seen Hall and Eberle commit inexcusable turnovers and defensive play and then be right back out never missing a shift because they are the good old Canadian boys.

    Fact is, if Yak was Canadian a lot more people would be outraged about how he has been mishandled since he was drafted.

  • Kevwan

    I think people are just disappointed in Yak’s production. As an 18 year old he scored 27 goals in 70 KHL and NHL games. The past 3 years he’s been no where near that level.

    His rookie level production did raise expectations pretty high.

  • Kevin McCartney

    I think we really have to ask ourselves (and maybe put on the table) our expectations for players. Because I generally find that the people who hate their home town players legitimately have no idea what a ‘reasonable’ number for a scorer is. Last year there were 127 forwards who scored 40 or more points – that’s 4 per team. That’s it. To be in the top 180 forwards (‘top 6’ per team), you had to score 32 points last year. Yak had 33. His issue? Defence. Matt has clearly shown that he’s improved substantially under a coach known as a clear communicator and who seems likely to stay for a while.

    I remember when Hall was first drafted and people were honestly saying that if he didn’t score 100 points a season, he was a bust as a #1. Of course, almost no one gets 100 points ever. Benn led the league last year with 87!

    But fast forward and Hall is among the very best LW in the game, carries the offence on his back, drives play, scares defenders and many/most of his critics have started to quiet down (despite never reaching 100 points) just as the MSM has started to get louder on the subject. Those of us who had more reasonable expectations enjoyed watching him become a dominant player from those first games with Horcoff as his centre.

    With Yak, we’re seeing it come together and some of us are enjoying every shift of it. In spite of everything the team and fans have put him through (a guy you can’t get to stop practicing, who never stops smiling, buys homeless people dinner and says he loves Edmonton!), his improved corsi numbers and chemistry with McDavid are evidence of him putting it all together.

    So what are our honest expectations for him? Because if we expect him to be a top six forward who contributes to a winning team, then we can expect 35-45 points and a positive corsi and goal-differential player at even strength. He’s on pace for 43 points (per 82 games) and Matt has shown he’s now a positive corsi player. So he’s exactly on target. Plus, he’s years away from his prime, he’s on a value contract and he’s got chemistry with McDavid. Oh, and he’s passionate, charismatic and seems to be a genuinely good person and good role model in the community.

    To me, that’s a great player for a #1 overall.

    **** Also, he’s not Russian. He’s Tatar.

  • Mike Modano's Dog

    Excellent work – thanks for pointing this out. It seemed to me that the last while, not only this year he had been improving. It’s nice to see the numbers playing that out as well for proof positive!!

  • Mike Modano's Dog

    Surprising indeed, Matt! Good work.

    I double-checked using Steven Burtch’s delta Corsi (dCorsi), in which he uses a statistical model (regression analysis) to take into account quality of teammates, linemates, and zone starts. dCorsi tells us how much better (or worse) the player is doing compared to average player in his position.

    Even there, his dCorsi (per 60) is above zero at +0.77, that is, slightly better than the average forward in the same context. His positive dCorsi value is driven by shot attempt generation than shot suppression, which is still slightly negative.

    +0.77 might not seem like much, but considering his dCorsi/60 has been -6.5 each of the last 2 seasons, it’s a considerable improvement.

    His brief time (TOI=28 min) with Kassian has been incredibly impressive. The team sports a 67.4% Corsi when they’re on the ice. (It’s 50% when Yakupov is without Kassian.)

    I was still curious, though. Knowing that his Corsi is strong with Kassian & McDavid, I used the puckalytics.com Super WOWY feature to see Yakupov’s Corsi without either of them: 49.1%. Still not too bad.

    Agreed that it will be very interesting to track his progress for the remainder of the season.