When Nail Yakupov scored his third goal of the 2017-18 season on Wednesday night, evading the struggling Tuukka Rask, he looked thrilled.
That, of course, is how he looks after every goal he scores – and every goal his teammates score, whether it’s a goal he helps them score or it’s one he witnesses from the bench.
Yakupov has long been a face of relentless enthusiasm, genuinely enthralled by the chance to play the game of hockey. He brings that enthusiasm with him to interviews (remember that time he gave the World’s Most Endearing Interview after Russia’s Gold medal at the World Juniors in 2012?), and he brings it with him to every fan interaction he has. He’s the first to like a fun fan tribute sent his way on Instagram, the first to stop and buy someone a hot meal, and the first to post uplifting pictures with his dog even when he’s having trouble on the ice.
By now, his time in Edmonton has been well-documented.
Some thought he didn’t care about changing his game. Others thought maybe he had been overhyped, a weaker player in an already-weak draft class who stood out simply by virtue of his surrounding competition, and yet more were convinced that he just wasn’t mentally suited to the daunting task of pulling Edmonton out of the basement.
It’s certainly true that things didn’t bounce back immediately with the St. Louis Blues, where he was on a bit of a tight leash. He walked away from his first-ever NHL season not as a member of the Edmonton Oilers with just three goals and nine points in 40 regular season NHL games.
This year, though, he’s already on pace to do better – almost comically better. Skating on a line with the maligned Matt Duchene and newcomer Alex Kerfoot, he’s already matched last season’s goal totals and boasts five points in four games.
It would be easy to look at the change in his game as simply luck; assuming that he’s riding high and will crash back to earth soon would be a quick assertion to make without getting too lambasted.
And sure, it’s true – his 27.5 shooting percentage isn’t likely to hold up over 82 games. Not only is it unrealistic under the best of circumstances, but he’s only played roughly 13 minutes per night since re-entering the league as a member of the Colorado Avalanche.
Deeper than that, though, it’s entirely possible that the Avalanche are simply his best fit.
NAIL MAKES THE AVALANCHE BETTER
Last season, the Colorado Avalanche were embarrassingly bad.
That’s not a journalist hack assertion; they were legitimately the league’s worst team in years. They wrapped up the year with just 48 points, finishing 20-plus points behind even the rest of the league’s basement-dwellers. Their best goaltender was nearly 13 goals saved below average (and everyone else only struggled more from there), their captain barely grazed 30 points – as a forward – and they had all but guaranteed their last-place finish by JANUARY.
Part of it was the team’s injuries combined with a last-minute coaching replacement.
They lost Semyon Varlamov to serious hip problems – which likely plagued him starting with his sub-par play to open the year – and Erik Johnson went down for a chunk of the season, as well. Add to that the need for Jared Bednar to re-shape a roster following their head coach’s last-minute departure from the team in late summer, and it was a recipe for disaster.
The other part of it, though, was that the team almost seemed to have trouble mustering up the enthusiasm to win games.
No hockey player is ever going to ‘stop caring’ about their team, and an entire team doesn’t just ‘stop caring’ about winning, either. That’s a lazy narrative and it should never be promoted with any kind of integrity.
It’s not hard to believe, though, that the Avalanche stopped having something to play for after a certain point. No matter how much they loved the game, they were fighting a losing war by December, and that’s very hard to push through.
That’s where Yakupov really seems to come in this year.
Every NHLer loves to score goals, but Nail Yakupov is absolutely thrilled by them. He wins the Stanley Cup every time his teammates get a hat trick or score some nifty goal, and it’s infectious. How many times, while he was on the Oilers, did viewers watch his excited celebrations and just… smile?
The Avalanche had the talent to win last year, and Nail’s relentless cheer seems to help put that back together.
THE AVALANCHE HELP NAIL
Of course, his enthusiasm can only get him so far on its own. The Avalanche are helping him, too.
The 2012 first overall pick is skating on the ‘prove-it’ line, and they’re absolutely on fire. Duchene is trying to resolve a harrowing offseason trade saga, Kerfoot is trying to prove he made the right choice to choose Colorado in free agency, and Nail is trying to prove he still belongs in the NHL.
They’ve being given the chance to prove it, too.
Colorado’s roster has been, by no means, perfect. They haven’t looked like a playoff team yet, and they still have a ways to go before they look like a clean-skating lineup again.
Head coach Bednar seems to be giving them the chance to iron out their respective wrinkles, though, without tightening any leashes. Last year was hard for all of this year’s returnees, and it was equally difficult for Yakupov (and, one could even say, for backup Jonathan Bernier in net). They aren’t being shut down on ice time when they make a mistake, they aren’t having their lines tossed in a blender when they don’t immediately click, and they aren’t being called out for an imperfect game here or there.
That may be exactly what it takes to get Yakupov rolling again. When he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s dynamic and talented – but when he’s reined in too tightly or punished for making mistakes, his spark seems to die out a bit.
Maybe, he’ll start to struggle as the season progresses, or he’ll have trouble when Duchene is traded to Arizona for Dylan Strome. Maybe he’ll finish the year with another 10-goal, 30-point season, and we’ll have to accept that that’s what he is as an NHLer.
Remember back to that lockout-shortened year, though.
Through 47 games, Nail Yakupov put up 17 goals and 31 points. He was thrilled for every one of those points he earned, and he genuinely believed that the Oilers were just around the corner from things finally getting better.
Maybe, just maybe, those years where Edmonton fans booed the players in and out of the tunnel, throwing their jerseys on the ice, extinguished his flame a bit. Not to say they didn’t deserve their criticism; the team was hot garbage, and everyone knew it.
But maybe, it took another hopeful season with a talented young group for the Yak Attack to fall in love with the game again. If that’s the case, it’s hard not to be happy for how things are going so far.