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Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Nail Yakupov and the Avalanche are good for each other (and we’re happy for him, we swear)

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.

  • fisherprice

    Oh weird. You mean Yak is thriving when he’s actually given worthwhile linemates? Weird. I sort of remember him doing that when he very occasionally got some ice time with Hall or McDavid, but y’know, I guess it was really important to make sure he played with plugs and “earn” his top 6 minutes, despite this never being the case for any other young Oilers. Ah well. I hope the Avs don’t trade Duchene now for Yak’s sake.

    • madjam

      Yak still has problems , leaving defence to others and not back checking and leaving for offence to soon . Duchene has made him look better , but I doubt it will last if Yak does not get some defensive acumen . Caught part of Colorado game and seen same old Yak doing same old abandon the defensive game and cost their team a goal which he could have easily prevented .

      • camdog

        He’ll always have defensive liabilities. If he doesn’t lose his confidence and get benched when he makes his mistakes he might be able to score enough to off set his deficiencies, just like Eberle. I’ve seen Schultz make Schultz like plays in Pittsburgh as well and that hasn’t stopped him from winning a couple cups.

        • Anton CP

          Some players are just going to be one-dimensional that no matter how much you want to turn them into something they are not, it won’t work at all. Tons of players that can only play offensive end of the ice and that’s what the other lines are for. It is like telling Chris Neil to run the PP, it is not going to work out.

  • 24% body fat

    Yak was great the lock out year. Kruger had him in the ovechkin spot, opposite side with two right handed passers (gagner, hemsky) dishing him the puck for his big shot. Kruger coached for creativity and was trying to develop the best parts of the offensive guys talents. The other pieces there were to hold down the fort defensively while the complete games of Gagner, and Eberle were to round out, while hall nuge and yak could develop offensively. The other holes on defense., well that was the GM.

    Enter Eakins, when you draft I guy who scores goals first over all you get him that confidence in the nhl and make him a goal scorer. As he ages three or four years down the line than you can worry about the defensive side more. He was a friggen winger. His defense wasnt going to cost the oilers games. More established players were the culprits. However a lot of time a good defence is a great offense and eakins, too the out of everyone of the oilers skilled forwards. Find a player under eakings that has really returned to their old glory after he coached. Gagner, Hemsky, Nuge, Eberle, Perron, Hall, Yakupov?

    Lets say it how it was. We got a new puppy, and at first it was great. When he peed on the floor the oilers and their puppet media beat the living hell out of him and he was done. A new foster has taken him in and are doing a fine job of rehabbing!

    • 24% body fat

      Shame on Eakins, horrible coach, Shame on MacT, horrible GM (or management postion at all), Shame on Stauffer, and Spector how push the oilers agenda in fear of their jobs instead of unbiased reporting.

    • Anton CP

      For all the heartaches throughout the Oilers history, the era of Eakins was one of the worst. The only good thing came out of Eakins period was that the Oilers got McDavid. Eakins was just simply put, bad. I have doubts in him before he coached the first regular season game and I want him gone when he started scapegoating Yak.

  • Oil DAWG

    Maybe if Yak and his agent shut their yappers. Quit complaining; accepted forth line roles and worked really hard he might be our Eberle replacement this year. I’m glad he’s doing well but he never earned a top spot.

  • Hemmercules

    Never a big fan but good for him. I wasn’t that happy when they drafted him but best player available and all that. They should have tried to flip him immediately for a Dman or sent him down. Just a bad marriage, they were already full up on smallish offensively skilled players and then they rushed him anyway. What might have been if they developed him properly but we will never know. I actually thought St.Louis might get something out of him but that didn’t work either. Now he has everything to lose on a team with nothing to lose, might be a good fit.

    • arab05

      Glad we took Yak and played him right away in the NHL. If we would have let him find his game in the AHL we might not have McDavid on our team. Every move made before McDavid was perfect, even trading for Griffin Reinhart.

      • Hemmercules

        Looking back, its not hard think that it all ended up bringing Mcdavid to Edmonton. My head hurts just thinking of all the terrible moves that went on for those 8 or 9 years. Anyone who says the Oil didn’t deserve MacDavid are dead wrong. Lowe put us through hell and we needed a saviour.

        • BringtheFire 2.0

          “Anyone who says the Oil didn’t deserve MacDavid are dead wrong. Lowe put us through hell and we needed a saviour.”

          Yes, I one hundred per cent agree. But it wasn’t Lowe that put you through that, it was Katz. Any reasonable owner doesn’t put childhood heroes on the throne and then ignore their ineptitude as the team burns.

          For Edmonton fans, I love that you got him. You and-dare I say-Leaf fans, deserve Real hope and good, exciting hockey with a chance to win every night.

          There are trolls on FN who make fun of Edmonton for the draft picks, but it was all managerial problems, the likes of which few teams have ever known.

          My only hope is that you guys keep winning, and Katz gives more and more autonomy to Chia, who in turn gives more and more autonomy to Todd.

          Oh, and as a fan of hockey in general, I don’t care who he’s playing for: I’d watch Connor McDavid read a phone book.

          He’s. Awesome.

          • Hemmercules

            Katz takes some blame for sure but Lowe was the big decision maker early on.

            Lowe had experience, he built a team that went to the cup final. Hard to blame Katz for initially wanting him on the job.

            The instant it came time for Tamblo to be fired, thats when Katz should have stepped in.

            Its all water under the bridge now. We have Mcjesus and all is well.

          • BringtheFire 2.0

            But Lowe didn’t have experience. Katz said he; “Didn’t have the room under the cap…” and basically tried to defend him AND give him credit for the current team, by point out that he stepped aside because he’s a; “Team player” .

            He might have been that, but he wasn’t a team builder, that’s for sure. And Katz knew this long before he was replaced.

          • Hemmercules

            I dont really blame Katz at the beginning personally. The guy didn’t now how to run a hockey team when he bought it but his friend Lowe had been a GM for 8 years and built a team that went within 1 game of the cup. He confided in Lowe based on that and it blew up in his face. He really needed to step in probably a year before Tamblo was fired and say enough, we need to hire a GM with legit experience and get an NHL coach at the same time. When they announced MacT as the new GM and Katz just let it happen I nearly flipped my desk over at work that day.

          • fasteddy

            Are you folks that naive that you think they were trying to be a playoff team?! The mission became tear it down and get some high picks to rebuild; you don’t find high end talent at the low end of the draft, in free agency, or trades. Of course the story had many twists and turns, but don’t forget what the objective was….I’d say based on that the management group’s mission can’t be considered anything but a success…..a lot of high end talent came in during past 7 or 8 years.

          • Anton CP

            TMac is a good coach but I find him too nice at times. He needs to have refs ears more often especially when McDavid was hacked and slashed. Heck, McLellan should complain to refs at the mere sight of any opposition sticks touch any part of his body.

    • Anton CP

      Yeah, I wasn’t happy when the Oilers got the first overall that year. I wasn’t happy that they drafted Yak (for Yak’s sake really, it was going to be a disaster from the get-go). I wasn’t happy that they did not flip him. I wasn’t happy that they did not deal Hemsky right away. I watched Yak since his junior years so I have some idea about what type of the player that he was and knew it will be terrible if he actually ended up playing for the Oilers.

  • Big Nuggets

    If we kept Krueger as coach the Oilers would look a lot different today. We wouldnt have McDavid which would suck, but I think Yak would be a legit NHLer. That year with Eakins was the lowest point in Oilerd history.
    Hope Yak has a good year for the Avs.

      • BringtheFire 2.0

        It wasn’t Eakins: it was the brain trust that drafted him number 1. He was projected to go number twelve and all but two of your scouts advocated not picking him.

        It was a sudden, tremendous amount of pressure and responsibility in a Canadian market and he wasn’t ready for it. He’s only now just recovering.

        • McDavid's Comet

          I believe the story goes: Yak was the consensus #1 by all drafting firms except for one whom had him at 2nd. Even Bob MacKenzie had him at #1 overall however Oiler scouts were not sold on him and that is when Katz stepped in and made sure he was picked first, allegedly…

        • McDavid's Comet

          Yak was progressing just fine with Kruger as coach, then Eakins came in and Yaks progression went all to he*l. You are right though his decline is due to dumb-a$$ management.

      • camdog

        At what point does a player stop developing? Reality is the Oilers young players lost 2 years of development during the Mact/Eakins experiment. The list of young players that had their progress stunted includes Petry, DD, Hall, RNH, Schultz. Yak is still young, he may turn into a decent winger or he may just have had a good week.

  • btrain

    Just a recap of some of the things happening around the league:
    Vegas is 3 and 0
    Petroangelo & Ryan Hartman? are tied with a couple others for the NHL points lead
    Matt Murray is 29th in save percentage, Talbot 25th, Price 23rd
    Chris Stewart has 4 goals
    Vegas/Devils/Avalanche & Wings are all tied for 3rd in points across the entire NHL and 2 points off the lead.

    Conclusion…..its 4 games and things are very much out of wack right now. I hope the best for Nail and its great to see his excitement again. However lets pump the breaks a little, as the kid has 78 games left to play this season and like a lot of trends after 4 games, regression towards the mean will correct most of these anomalies.

    • JimmyV1965

      Agreed. Anomalies happen at the start of every year. Wish the best for Yak and maybe he can scratch out 20 goals somehow, but he’s not going to light the world on fire. The Avs are a real good fit for him though. Have no idea why the Blues picked him up last year. A cup contender with Hitch as the coach was about the worst place he could go. This will be a welcome breath of fresh air for the kid.

      • btrain

        I am happy for the kid, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be realistic and suggest that its way to early to be promoting his resurgence in Colorado after 4 games. Its somewhat of a feel good story but it needs to be kept in context. I don’t think anyone on here needs to be reflecting on what the Oilers missed out on because of this coach and that GM. After a few months, if Yak is still producing at a high rate, then its appropriate to have that conversation. At this point I will be happy for Yak and the great start despite the fact that it proves nothing.

    • Regression towards the mean?

      Almost like the first few paragraphs say “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.”

      😉

    • Anton CP

      If Yak can end the season with 40 points, that’s good enough trending toward the positive. Gagner has 50 points last season by playing on 4th line. Yak is only 24 so he still have the chance to salvage his career.

  • Serious Gord

    Just skimming through the list of players who are/seem to be doing better after leaving the oil then when they were with the oil:

    Petry
    Dubnyk
    Shultz
    Yak (maybe)
    Hall (maybe)

    One wonders maybe it’s a systemic problem with the oilers organization – not the players in question.

    • IRONman

      What I don’t like is the player development. Oilers draft 18 year old top pick, slap a jersey on his back and throw him on the ice and say score some goals

      • IRONman

        I wish they would bring them up at 20 years old. Look At Leon. Just needed time. Big difference between a 18 year old and 20 year old. Jesse Puljujarvi will come around and so will Yamamoto. I want to see Yam and McDavid for at least one game. Love Yam our new Yak. Wish Yak all the best. Good guy, met him once. PC is getting results. Hang in there Oil

    • tileguy

      Don’t worry Gord, most of the stink from the Klowe years is gone and will be completely eradicated (except from the corporate tower) in another year or so.

    • Rob...

      What you’re failing to do is look at other teams to see if they traded away or lost players who went on to better careers elsewhere. This is just like how former Oilers always seem to come back here and score on us. Though on the surface it looks horrible, it’d be interesting to see league wide what percentage of goals are scored on a team by former players.

      • camdog

        Rob… I think pretty much every hockey commentator in the world would say that the Oilers organization was hot garbage for at least 6 years and it left a mark on each and every player that was with the organization.

        • Rob...

          Sure was. Of course, part of that hot garbage was due to a ton of high draft pics that had never been asked to play a complete game at any point in their lives. As those players matured and develop that side of their game should it be a surprise that they look better than they did in their first several years?

    • McDavid's Comet

      You mean previous Oilers management, not current? All the players you mentioned are because of the previous managment. If you didn’t know, now you know.

  • Jordan88

    I swear if someone brings up his defensive game I will refer to the subtle poke in his own zone to get Mackinnon the puck and then skating up and one timing a bullet into the gaping maw that was Rask in net.

    These stupid people

  • Glencontrolurstik

    Two of his goals in one game this year, he didn’t even have to beat a goalie…
    I too wish the best for him, but let’s keep it in perspective….

  • Heschultzhescores

    I think we killed Yaks enthusiasm. Kept punishing him for every mistake and when he scored an exciting goal and celebrated, we punished him for that too. Talented people are often held back by less talented people who don’t get it.

    • GriffCity

      He was “punished” because he was a hot mess on the ice 95% of the time and this is pro-sports. He caught a tiny bit of flack for his over-exuberant celebration on a TYING goal during the regular season one time, but received just as much praise for it. When you goa league worst -33 followed by a league worst -35, it isn’t because we killed his enthusiasm lol

  • Neddd

    @Glencontrolurstik

    Fully agree, a little perspective is needed. As you point out, 2/3 of his goals this year were not against a goalie…. and although St. Louis may not have been a perfect fit, he was still given the opportunity to play and he pretty much did nothing with it. I mean, even if you argue that he didn’t have good line mates or decent ice time, in a fourth line role even Zack Kassian produced points at a better pace last year and that’s not his calling card.

    And if you’re still convinced that Yakupov is now really a productive point producer after leaving the Oilers, I suggest that you take a look at how exactly he scored his 3 goals last year. They’re pretty similar to 2/3 of his goals this year….. which are pure fluke. They belong more on a blooper montage rather than a highlight reel. Certainly not what you would expect from a real goal scorer.

    • Glencontrolurstik

      Yeah, the poor guy has tons of skill, but really no hockey sense… that’s the bottom line with Nail…
      I don’t think that can be taught really either at this stage of his career… Sad really?

  • Anton CP

    Yak was the reason that I started visiting ON. It was because that I was so pissed about how Eakins threw Yak under the bus by benching him early in his second season. I’ve been defending Yak forever because that Yak was not a perfect hockey player but he has his talents that was never (ok,not never, he got his chances with Krueger and Nelson) been properly utilized. He is an emotional player that affects his plays which as long as that you can keep him on the positive sides that he will produce. I was actually worried that if his career will be over once he was traded to St. Louis because Hitchcock was one of the most overrated coach ever and favors physical dominance instead of the hockey prowess. Good for him to finally find a team that will benefit him with his skill sets.