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.
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.
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.
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
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