There’s no question which of the Edmonton Oilers’ No. 1 overall draft picks has had the most difficult adjustment to the NHL.
Nail Yakupov enjoyed an impressive rookie season in 2012-13, scoring 17 times and managing 31 points in just 48 games, but since then has struggled mightily. He’s now in the midst of his third consecutive unsuccessful season, and Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli faces two unappealing choices: He can either hang on to Yakupov for another season, hoping that he can change the pattern, or he can trade the 22-year-old winger to another NHL team for what is bound to be an unimpressive return.
Either way, the current treatment Yakupov is getting from head coach Todd McLellan isn’t helping matters.
It’s easy to be overly critical of the coach. McLellan (and any other coach) has to juggle multiple priorities: what’s best for individual players, what wins games, what furthers organizational goals, etc. Yakupov hasn’t necessarily made it easy for him, either. But none of that changes the fact that McLellan’s handling of Yakupov has neither put him in a position to succeed nor showcased him for a trade.
Yakupov has played with four different full-time Edmonton centres this year, and predominantly with two. The following are his even-strength numbers with each:
- Mark Letestu: 162 minutes, 0.00 points/hour, 44.7 percent Corsi
- Connor McDavid: 142 minutes, 2.96 points/hour, 52.3 percent Corsi
- Anton Lander: 41 minutes, 1.45 points/hour, 60.5 percent Corsi
- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: 35 minutes, 1.73 points/hour, 34.8 percent Corsi
These are all relatively small samples, though for the latter two centres we can look back on a longer history.
Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov have never worked well together—Dallas Eakins was routinely criticized for not giving Yakupov a fair shake during his time as coach, but he gave that duo a long look and it just didn’t work. In more than six hours together Yakupov had just five assists, no goals at all and the Oilers were caved in on the shot clock.
Lander and Yakupov, weirdly, haven’t been a terrible fit in a little over two hours together. It’s not a duo that has produced much offensively, but it has done a decent job of keeping the shots against numbers down. If Yakupov is to be consigned to a bottom-six role, Lander’s probably not a bad centre for him.
As for the other two, the results this year have been night and day. With McDavid Yakupov enjoyed some real success early in the year. McLellan took care not to start this line in the defensive end of the rink, but it produced offensively. The Letestu/Yakupov duo, on the other hand, has been totally useless. Sticking Yakupov with an offensive sinkhole like Letestu—his five-on-five points per hour number this year is a little bit north of Nick Schultz and a little bit south of Taylor Chorney—makes it impossible for him to produce. Sticking Letestu with a defensive liability like Yakupov makes it impossible to trust the unit with much in the way of defensive responsibility.
If McLellan just wants to shuffle Yakupov to the fourth line and forget about him, maybe the thing to do is to start dressing Lander in the place of the appalling Lauri Korpikoski. That would allow him to build a third line featuring Letestu, Matt Hendricks and Zack Kassian, a unit which could be given some tougher defensive assignments and would at least bring physical play. That would leave Lander and Iiro Pakarinen as a penalty kill duo on the fourth line and allow Yakupov to play his handful of minutes per night with a centre whom he hasn’t been a total disaster with.
Alternately, Yakupov could go back to playing with McDavid. The benefits for Yakupov are obvious, as are the benefits to whichever line then gets to play with Jordan Eberle. It’s not at all clear that the Oilers would be worse off in this scenario—whatever loss of effectiveness Eberle suffers is likely to be compensated for by a return to effectiveness for Yakupov—but even if they are it won’t be by much and it’s not like the playoffs are on the line. The caveat here is that if Edmonton is looking at trading Eberle in the summer he should certainly stay welded to McDavid’s hip.
Whatever the Oilers think of or plan to do with Yakupov, though, his current assignment next to Letestu seems like a mistake. It’s not good for Yakupov, it’s not good for Letestu and it isn’t good for Edmonton.