In order to celebrate the Edmonton Oilers’ 40-year anniversary AND distract ourselves during this hockey-less nightmare, we’ll be re-living 40 amazing moments from Oilers history. Today, we have Nail Yakupov scoring a last-second, game-tying goal and his incredible celebration.
Nail Yakupov was going to be a sensation.
Though the Oilers had already stockpiled a ton of offensive talent through the draft in recent years, adding Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with back-to-back first-overall picks to a core that already included Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner, they surely couldn’t say no to Yakupov.
The Russian sniper broke into the OHL as a 17-year-old and scored 49 goals in 65 games with the Sarnia Sting, even better than the 42-goal performance Steven Stamkos had with the team a few earlier. Adding Yakupov to their potent young offence would give the Oilers an embarrassment of riches up front that they hadn’t seen since their 80s dynasty days.
After finishing the 2011-12 season with a 32-40-10 record, the Oilers lucked out at the draft lottery and ended up with their third-consecutive first-overall pick. While Yakupov was ranked as the No. 1 skater, many people, including the majority of Edmonton’s scouts, leaned towards WHL defender Ryan Murray. It turned into quite a debate, not unlike Edmonton’s other two first-overall decisions.
Apparently, the morning of the draft, general manager Steve Tambellini gathered his scouts in a room and had them vote on who they thought the Oilers should draft. Nine voted for Murray, only two voted for Yakupov. After that, Tambellini met with Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, and Daryl Katz to finalize the decision.
That night, Tambellini walked up to the stage at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh and proudly selected, from the Sarina Sting, Nail Yakupov.
There was certainly controversy around the pick. Pundits from around the league shook their heads at the idea of the Oilers drafting yet another forward when the team so clearly had a gaping hole on the blueline that needed to be addressed.
But Yakupov showed the kind of flare at the Junior level that made him seem like the kind of player you’d regret passing over. He had that wicked shot, a nose for the net, a knack for scoring goals that nobody could pass on, no matter what their roster composition looked like. Yakupov also oozed this infectious energy that would give the young Oilers some life as they broke out of their rebuild days and into contention.
Edmonton would have to wait a while before they got to watch their newest prize as the first half of the 2012-13 season was wiped out due to a lockout. While Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Justin Schultz were ripping it up together in Oklahoma City for the AHL Oil Barons, Yakupov played for his hometown Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk in the KHL.
When the season finally began in January, Yakupov hit the ground running. He scored his first goal in just the second game of his career, a 6-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks, and then, two nights later, he did this…
With the Oilers down 1-0 in the dying seconds to the defending champions, the Los Angeles Kings, Yakupov turned Edmonton into Yak City. Eric Belanger won the faceoff back to Justin Schultz, who fired a shot from the point that was blocked by former Oiler Jarret Stoll. Taylor Hall picked up the puck in the high slot and ripped a spin-around-wrister on net and Yakupov, who was waiting at the side of the net, batted the rebound out of mid-air past Jonathan Quick to tie the game at 1-1.
An ecstatic Yakupov looked like he had just won the Stanley Cup. He skated through his teammates as they gathered around him to celebrate the goal and he busted to the blueline and got down on his knees and slid all the way into Edmonton’s zone on his knees, Theoren Fleury style. The fans at Rexall Place went absolutely bonkers for the goal and the subsequent celebration. Welcome to Yak City.
At that moment, the Oilers had made the right decision. As much as they needed a defender, there was no way they could have turned down a chance to add this kid and his incredible energy to the team.
Unfortunately, this would be the high point of Yakupov’s career. He put together a very strong rookie season, potting a team-leading 17 goals, but it was all downhill from there.
Yakupov struggled the following season under new head coach Dallas Eakins. He scored only 11 goals in 63 games with a team-worst -33 rating. It wasn’t just a sophomore slump, as Yakupov failed to improve in his third and fourth seasons in the league. In 2016, Yakupov was traded to the St. Louis Blues for a third-round pick and a throwaway prospect. Two years later, he was out of the league.
It’s hard to say who’s at fault for Yakupov becoming a bust. Would things have been better for him in Columbus? Would things have worked out if the Oilers kept Ralph Kreuger behind the bench? In hindsight, there were a lot of glaring issues with Yakupov’s game. His skating style was weird and clunky and he was completely lost when he didn’t have the puck. Maybe better coaching or a different circumstance could have fixed these problems. Maybe not.
Watching that goal and the slide, you see a player with such an incredible passion for the game you can’t help but smile. For a brief moment, we got to see the player Yakupov could be and the energy he could provide. It’s just a shame we didn’t get to see more of it.