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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Aitch

    Yak is an overeager kid. In junior, that trait combined with blazing speed, meant he could play 100 mile/hour and produce doing it. Unfortunately, in the NHL, there are lots of players who can cover that speed, and more. As he matures, some of that eagerness will go away. He’ll learn when to turn it on and when to slow the game down. Similar to the maturation that Hall has gone through in adjusting his style.

    Yak’s got a great fastball. He needs to work on his change.

  • 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

  • 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.*

  • People also need to remember that was a terribly weak draft year and none of the other top picks from that year are in a much better boat than Yak. Gally in Montreal is as much of a polarizing player there as Yak is here, Murray’s okay but not exactly knocking anyone’s socks off as a #2 overall d-man, etc. If he continues to grow as he has this year, Yak may yet well end up being the best of them.

  • 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.

  • LibrarianMike

    Would be nice to see him “fit in”on a line for a lengthly period and be comfortable and gain some confidence,a credit to the coaches and to him .Kinda jobbed from the very beginning various coaches and critics this year looked like it was finally going to work out then fluke injury to him and to MacD forces a re-load yet again,give him Credit could have given up but didnt.Good on you Yak Keep on doing your thing.

  • 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?

  • Aitch

    Yak always plays hard, he always seems to be the odd man out when there are too many right wingers. I really think that by the end of this season, either Yak or Eberle won’t be on this team.
    He is still,finding his way and never gives up.
    Like many fans, I hope he lites it up when McDavid gets back , he has had to put up with way too many haters.

  • .

    Love Yak and his energy.

    I dream that Yak develops into a player who combines the best of Ovechkin and the best of Datsyuk into a new hybrid Rocket-Richard-Frank-Selke double-double winner.

    Hey, I can dream can’t I?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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….

  • 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.

      • 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?

      • 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.

  • 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…..

  • AJ88

    I like Yak. I cheer for him and he does, to my eye, seem to be doing better this year.

    Frustrations are that he misses the net too much and this year he seems to be on a Corsi Crusade. He’s taking more shots from bad areas. I guess the flip side of that is that it’s better he’s taking shots than not.

    He’s going to be fine. Apparent great attitude. People have to get over that he was a #1 pick and go with what he is and will be. It’s the Horcoff syndrome.

  • 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.

  • Philosiphil

    Excellent post, Mr. Kassian. Simple for guys like me to understand, clear, and for us old farts, a Dragnet quote – “just the facts, m’am”.

    Yak has heart and hustle, just like every kid that loves hockey. Oil fans should be celebrating that. Long term he could be a sleeper Oiler favourite.

    And, agree with other posters that he was damned by being #1, especially in a weak draft year. he was a solid pick that took time to develop…

    His late goal the other night (Dallas, IIRC) made it 3-2, quick release from the left circle, that is his destiny. Anticipation, quick release…he and McD gel for that reason (yes, McD and almost everyone else will gel too, but not Hall as we have seen).

    Cheers boys.

  • 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.

  • 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 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.

  • 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!!