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

  • hagar

    It’s weird how mentally unstable/weak the oilers players are. I don’t know why it’s so common on this team, but it is.

    They pick and choose when they want to play well, things get a little off and it seems to shut their games down.

    People talk of how good they would be without the injuries, I talk about how good they would be without the injuries AND everyone playing their best all the time.

    • 50 in 39

      Really, it doesn’t seem like any kind of cosmic mystery to me

      Years of losing games, often badly, many occasions of teams actually laughing about it mid-game

      Being buried so deep in the standings for years and playing without hope or purpose

      One of the worst head coaches ever in the NHL

      Absolutely terrible management

      It is (hopefully was) so widespread even life long winners like Hall have been effected

  • S cottV

    With the goal being to get bigger, stronger, more possession via cycling – more reliable two way systems oriented etc. – Yak doesn’t fit.

    He does not think the team game.

    His individual skills oriented instincts are deep seeded and I don’t see it changing all that much.

    Systems play requires all players on the ice to buy in and execute as a combined unit. Sure – there is room for individualism, but it’s not forced. Play the system with some patience and pounce on an opportunity to use individual skill when it naturally presents itself.

    That ain’t Yak. Head down – feet and hands jerking at 100 mph while travelling 20 mph, continually driving square pegs in round holes, at the wrong time in the wrong places.

    Use the improved corsi stats to build a case for a trade.

    Have we not had enough of small, individualistic, skillsy, soft (yes Yak is soft), finicky players and 10 years of losing?

  • You just got LITT up!

    I have to disagree! Is yak better this year? Maybe (when playing with McDavid), however, ask yourself is Yak’s “better” enough for Oiler fans? He’s a former 1st overall and been in the league long enough now that he is what he is. I believe it was Jim Lahey who said “a $h1t leopard can’t change its spots”. The only constant over the past 10 years or whatever is that Oiler fans constantly feel the need to defend everything Oiler (right or wrong). People continually apologize for Yak or give him another chance, but why? I hate to say it but I think Yak is probably closer to Alexandre Daigle status than a good player.

    Serious question, if the Oilers tried to move Yak, what is his market value?

    • Serious Gord

      It’s unfair to compare yak with a prima Donna like daigle – yak is a person of higher quality character than daigle.

      Yak has the makings of a good player, maybe even a great one. And if he fails it won’t be because he didn’t try. You can’t say that about daigle.

  • Serious Gord

    Like the kid,just dont like how he skates AWAY from taking a small hit to make a play!!!!!!!Like alot of OILERS
    How about Yak for Drouin straight accross

    • S cottV

      You know, when you read about Drouin and Cooper, it seems very similar to Yak and Eakins.

      – offensive player played on the fourth line
      – often put in the press box
      – produced in small samples but never given a regular push
      – has to “earn” his ice time while others don’t

      But both need to play a 200 foot game, so while Yak can frustrate some fans, he’s been working on this for a little while, whereas Drouin has just started. Trading Yak for Drouin would just be a step back.

  • 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….

  • S cottV

    There has been a consistantly applied process in play for a long enough time period that Players are beginning to think the system as much as play it.Players are able to anticipate impactfully now.

    T-Mac made adjustments and went to a KISS focus after the 6 game win streak….and then he wisely refused to budge,he kept the collapse defense focus and just tweaked it over and over NOT CONFUSING THE ISSUE making small detailed adjustments…NOT…making core value changes,his has allowed everyone to become familiar with Process expectations.

    The defensive zone tactics have become a constant.

    Kudos to T-Mac for woking so hard to build a “Process page” for everyone to find a home on.

    A consistant base Process is required BEFORE more complicated offensive tactics are worked into the equation.

    When a KISS consistant baseline expectation is presented it allows individual playes to find he right “fits” for their own skillsets ……they lose nothing and the Process gains everything.

    The “base Process” can be ANYTHING,collapse defense or stand-up defense or whatever you wish AS LONG AS IT IS CONSISTANTLY APPLIED long enough to become a functioning base to build off of.

    Consistancy of Process is paying off….KISS…is paying off…T-Mac is teaching something solid and well planned….and he is beginning to build trust with all of his men.

    T-Mac is right to believe he is on the right track,all those one goal games are evidence he is on the right track,sooner than later the cerebral muscle-memory being imprinted now will allow the Oilers skillsets to shine through,when that happens the one goal games will be sympathetic to the Oilers cause.

    Patience and more time = more trust.

    Nail Yakupov has ALWAYS BEEN A TEAM FIRST PLAYER…..the results reflect the consistantly projected Process,the Process makes the Player.

    Nails results are Process or Team generated,just like Halls or Nuges or Dre’s or anyone elses,the men may now thank EACH OTHER for every kudo they recieve because we can now safely say that the Process is now making the Player in Edmonton,this is taking pressure off of everyone as was desperately needed,now we will finally begin to see individuals in positions process-wise to consistantly execute process responsibiliies AND then add small responsible volumes of their personalities to the equation.

    No one has to do to much,no one has to feel to much pressure,the Process has begun to absorb the pressure adequately and the men are beginning to rely on it to do this more now,to TRUST THE PROCESS.

    Darn fine job T-Mac.

    Darn fine job Fellas.

    Darn fine article Matt.

    A little “erratic” but darn fine…lol.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • Dan 1919

    Most nights, Yak has looked like a competent NHL player. He’s been holding his own in the defensive end, and shows speed, explosiveness & creativity in the offensive zone… unfortunately he has yet to translate that into consistent production (when not playing with McDavid).

    It’s only natural that his team’s shots for(corsi) has followed behind his on ice play and also increased.

    All in all, Yak is a pretty solid 3rd liner at $2.5mill. With only 14pts on the season, he may be slightly overpaid. But given his skill set, potential, and high draft pedigree, I think we can all live with $0.5-1mill overpayment for now.

    Plus he may flip that slight overpayment right upside down a prove to be a bargain in the second half of the season if things go well with him and McDavid again.

    The biggest problem people will have with Yak, and some may never be able to forget, is that he was drafted 1st overall. To them he will always be a disappointment as they won’t see past that terribly weak draft year. But if you can get past that, and look at his salary, ice time and effectiveness, there’s actually not much wrong with him as a player so far this season.

      • Dan 1919

        Hilariously wrong? Getting a little excited? Relax and look at the facts.

        Hendricks and Letestu are both around $1.8million. Similar points for
        Letestu, and similar impact as both those guys, slightly less so far.

        Your 42 point pace, check Yak’s game log and that’s a lop sided stat from when he played with that McDavid guy.

        Like I said, I think and hope Yak will flip that SLIGHT overpayment upside down playing with McDavid again in the second half. But I’m also not going to pretend he’s “breaking out” and generating points himself as he plays next to a generational talent.

        So unfortunately, you are hilariously wrong.

      • AJ88

        I wouldn’t say 2.5M is hilarious….but getting carried off the ice and down the tunnel and returning in 5 minutes is close to hilarious…what was that about?

  • 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. 🙂

  • Canoe Ride 27.1

    We hear about developing pairs that can work together as the new way to build a line. Who is Yakupov’s “pair”? 1 OV, who can clearly skate and shoot and in 4 years we have failed to build a tandem for the fan’s to enjoy.

  • Jordan88

    All this talk about him not being a 1st overall pick who else do we pick at 1st? Yak was a clear number 1.

    He is a fun player to watch I to what is becoming a boring game I haven’t watched with as much enthusiasm since McDavid got injured.

    However when I heard Kassian and Yakupov were going to play I got just as excited.

    I am not a fan of what I see in the NHL this year 3 on 3 is garbage the shootouts suck because the ice isn’t cleared leaving it more up to chance than actual skill. The refs call anything a holding yet blatant wreckless hits are ignored. And don’t even get me started on challenging for goal tender interference.

    I want Conyak back so we can get to the real issues of the game. Yakupov is far from an actual issue. *stares at defensive roster filled with boat anchor sized contracts.*

    • 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.

  • 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?