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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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All numbers courtesy of

  • Eulers

    Great article that shifted my perspective on the player. I’ve always been a fan of Yak. He worked hard, had a great attitude, but seemed to get a raw deal relative to the other golden boys. My faith was wavering though as Yak’s defensive play and use of his teammates in the offensive zone was worrying. Glad to hear he is pulling it together. I cheer like heck for him. LT wrote the other day that Yak was becoming a second “Chance” machine— now I see the data that backs that up.

  • Speed Junky

    Been a fan of Yak…Still a fan of Yak. I’m hoping that the ConYak line works out like the Crosby Kunitz line, or even better.
    This guy is a class act. Very skillful and is finding his way.

  • Serious Gord

    Dallas Eakins. MacTs biggest mistake.

    I know Eakins will make it back to the NHL. I hope when that happens, Yak lights that pricks team up. I’m sure Yak will be fired up.

    I love Yak. He may never live up to the Hype of his draft position but no one tries harder.

    • Serious Gord

      Extremely remote chance that Eakins ever is a head coach in the NHL IMO. It’s hard to itemize all of the things that make him a bad coach, but the biggest has to be his ego.

  • HockeyRulz

    Excellent write up. I fully agree yak does deserves a positive write up. Can’t wait to see the McD Poul Yak line soon. That line and the Hall line will make it very hard for other teams to manage.
    What do the oilers do with Ebs now? One day this team will be 100% healthy… Right?

  • Speed Junky

    Yak skates his ass off every game.

    Yak , 23 and 4 all have HEART

    HEART wins the cup

    at 2.5 million he is a Keeper for the Long Run

    can’t wait to see 67+97+10

    Maybe Ebs can go will Hall. hmmm

  • SmythsMullet

    I have always found his treatment in Edmonton quite hilarious. For so long he was the defensive liability and blah blah blah hes russian! Blah blah blah he doesnt want to play a 200 ft game!

    All the while Justin Schultz was the one deserving of all of that hatred.

    Really happy to see hes been having a great season this year, the tables are turning and he will succeed in the league whether he is run out of town by stupid fans or the MSM, YakCity will continue to rise.

      • For Pete's Sake!

        Sure, he gets plenty of crap now. Rewind to their first two seasons and you rarely heard anything from MSM, radio guys or fans about Schultz. Other than the fact that he received so much ice time as an excuse for his poor play. I remember asking the question on OilersNow 2 years ago wanting an answer from someone on the inside, “why is it we always hear about Yakupovs struggles, yet nobody seems brave enough to utter the words ‘Schultz’ and ‘Poor play’ in the same sentence?” Stauffer basically laughed at the question and changed the subject, meanwhile on Lowetides show I was given some good reasoning.

        I believe it’s simply because hes the Russian guy who could barely speak english, really easy for everyone to pick on the small sniper rather than facing the fear that golden boy Schultz (Our only hope for defense back then, cause yknow, “PetrySux”) doesn’t deserve second pairing minutes, never mind first pairing and PP/PK time.

        They’ve both had their games as stars, and as a huge Yakupov fan I will admit they’ve both had brutal games as well, but unlike Schultz Yak is actually improving, whether the fans want to admit it or not.

        Sidenote:Dont bash that I used to listen to OilersNow, ive since grown up, and listen to the ON podcast. 🙂

  • 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.

  • Oilers Coffey

    Great article.
    The numbers are catching up to where Nail wants to be. You can literally see how bad he wants to learn the 200′ game; he’ll get there.
    It baffles me why he’s been trashed the way he has by media (Stauffer, Remenda, Matheson, Rishaug …) here’s a player who actually LOVES playing in Edmonton, LOVES the Oilers fans. Does amazing work and good will around Edmonton.

    Yakupov is all heart and when you see Yakupov smiling and having fun playing you’ll see the points follow.

    • 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.

  • LibrarianMike

    No current Oiler player is more polarizing than Nail.It is so unfortunate that he has had so many different coaches in this short NHL career. Just as unfortunate is one of them is an idiot (eakins).

    Nail needs to do things twice as good and for longer stretches to get any recognition. He will always be an under dog on this team.
    He constantly placed in the lower line and plays more often with bottom 6 players than any 1st overalls. Orphaned from skill offensive players has often been his calling card.

  • 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

    Yak’s greatest failing is not even his fault:

    He should never have been drafted first overall. That set the expectations too high.

    His second greatest failing is also not his fault:

    He was picked by the oilers – a team top heavy in 1/2 offensively talented players. Had he been picked by say, Nashville he would have gotten the kind of offensively sweet minutes a player like him needed at least in the first few years of his NHL career.

    It’s been a rocky road for nail. I like his passion and I think he gives an honest effort almost every night. That said I think he will have a far better career playing somewhere else. I expect chia moves him before next September.

    • Dan 1919

      Yak playing elsewhere wouldn’t be surprising, however I doubt Chiarelli even knows at this point for sure.

      The team obviously will be built around McDavid, what we know from a very limited 12 games is that Yak and McDavid have chemistry.

      Another reason why these injuries have been so frustrating, we could have had a 20 game sample with McD Yak so far, and another 20 game sample with McD Eberle, heck maybe even try RNH on McD’s wing.

      With the foundation block missing from the new Downtown Oiler team(McDavid), it’s tough to fully commit to a certain group of players until you have a nice big sample size of who plays well with McD.

  • 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.

  • camdog

    There are 2 things that stick out for people that don’t like Yak the player.

    First often when he’s on a unit that causes a turnover he’ll usually beat the other forwards back however sometimes fail to neutralize his man. I like to think that many of the other forwards on the team wouldn’t even get back to be in the play, but that may be just putting my spin on the play.

    Second, when he’s not in the right mind frame confidence wise he’ll sometimes shoot the puck “5 feet” wide of the net on a good scoring opportunity.

    Overall these are parts to his game that as a young player are correctable. If they are corrected he turns into a pretty good hockey player, if he doesn’t well he doesn’t.