Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Yakupov shows signs of improvement during rookie campaign

Twenty-eight games into his rookie season, Edmonton Oilers winger Nail Yakupov looks to be the real deal. Some may have been expecting more from the nineteen year old Russian but from where I'm sitting, the youngster has been fantastic in his role during his first NHL campaign.

While he looks like he will fall a little short of my pre-season prediction of a sixteen goal/thirty-two point season, Yakupov has already shown flashes of brilliance and improvements to his all around game. With the Oilers already using the likes of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in major roles upfront, adding another kid into the mix was not going come without some sort of growing pains.

After scoring five goals in his first eight games, the former Sarina Sting standout has found the back of the net just once in his last twenty. He currently sits fifth in rookie scoring with fourteen points, one back of teammate Justin Schultz, and is tied with Schultz for the most power play goals among rookies. While they both have an ugly plus minus number, much of that can be attributed to the club's inability to score at five-on-five for much of the season.

Despite being thrown all over the lineup during those last twenty games, Yakupov has already started to show growth in his overall game. The turnovers are declining in number with each passing outing, his in zone coverage has improved on a nightly basis and he seems to have secured a home on a line with Sam Gagner and Magnus Paajarvi. 

Not too shabby for a guy who was seeing regular time with the likes of Eric Belanger, Lennart Petrell, Ryan Smyth and Chris VandeVelde over the last number of weeks. Not exactly a group of players that a kid with his skill-set would typically excel with.

Instead of sulking about his demotion down the depth chart at even strength, the nineteen year old worked his butt off to start correcting the limitations, in hopes of gaining head coach Ralph Krueger's trust. While Krueger has still taken to replacing him during stretches of the third period in games Edmonton are up a goal, he has seen regularly when the Oilers have been even or trailing in the final frame.

As previously mentioned, Yakupov has already become a regular contributor on the man advantage, courtesy of his lethal one-timer, and has started to figure out the NHL game. Some will argue that he isn't ready to play in the National Hockey League yet, which could not be further from the truth. Is the kid ready to be a full-time top six forward that is capable of carrying his team for time to time? Probably not but that hardly means he is not ready for the NHL.

His skating ability and shot are world-class and while he doesn't typically engage in the physical side of things, he has hardly been over matched. Yakupov made it abundantly clear he would not be returning to Sarina for a third season in the OHL and who could blame him? After putting up 170 points over 107 games for the Sting, going back for a third year would have accomplished what exactly?

Option number two, would have been leaving him in the KHL and have him start fresh come 2013-2014. There are two problems with that. It sends the wrong message to the player, whom you just used your first overall selection on, that you don't want him around and are more than ok with him playing in Russia. Secondly and most important, playing a full season in the KHL would have made his transition to the NHL that much harder.

Does anyone honestly believe that a single soul on Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik, the team in which Yakupov played with during the NHL Lockout, gives one iota about his development for the NHL? The answer to that question is an unequivocal no. If anything, it would likely have had the opposite effect. They play a different style of game over in Russia, that would have further ingrained certain aspects in Yakupov's game that needed to change.

In all honesty, the only real option was for Nail Yakupov to play with the Edmonton Oilers in 2013. That is where he wanted to be and frankly, where he needed to be. The growing pains will undoubtedly continue for the Russian teenager but they are a necessary evil for almost every player. In the long run, those lessons will undoubtedly benefit the player and most certainly the organization.

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