Nail Yakupov is one of the most dynamic personalities and electrifying talents the NHL has seen come through it’s door in some time. Drafted first overall in 2012 by the Edmonton Oilers, it was a no-brainer that he would be in their lineup opening day.
He was in Oiler blue and orange wearing No. 64 on opening day and impressed early, showing a penchant for big goals, most notably the celebration following a goal to tie a game in regulation against the Dallas Stars, getting mixed reviews from around the league.
He has struggled since, and the question now isn’t his talent or his personality, but rather if the Oilers have used him in the most effective way possible.
Yakupov currently sits fourth in rookie scoring with six goals and 13 points, and is sixth in Oiler scoring — very respectable for a 19-year old rookie.
When looking closer at the numbers, Yakupov is averaging 14+ minutes per night, which puts him 10th among NHL rookie forwards, with about 11:30 of that at even strength and the rest on the power play.
The PP time should be a surprise to no one, as that is where he can be most dangerous and his defensive shortcomings not nearly as problematic. This is evidenced by the fact that four of his six goals on the season have come via the man advantage.
The curious part is the even strength time. His 11:30+ per night puts him somewhere around 20th among just NHL rookie forwards. For a team such as the Oilers who are last in the league scoring five-on-five goals, one would think someone as dynamic as Yakupov would be given more of an opportunity at even strength.
Part of the issue is his place on the depth chart in Edmonton. Just one of a number of young talented forwards, Yakupov has Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky ahead of him in terms of wingers, and is fighting for time with players like Teemu Hartikainen, Magnus Paajarvi and Ryan Jones.
Granted, Yakupov does present somewhat of a liability defensively, especially compared to some of those players. However, seeing as how the team is near the bottom in the standings and last in goals scored, some defensive miscues could be overlooked for a few extra scoring chances, no? After all, look at Ales Hemsky — with all due respect to the other three, none have the elite talent of Yakupov.
Early in the year, Yakupov was playing in the top six alongside Hemsky and Sam Gagner. The three clicked from the start and was the team’s most dangerous trio on most nights. However, after giving up as many chances as they were getting, they were deemed as too one-dimensional, and Yakupov was moved down.
He has struggled mightily since, posting just one goal in his last 17 games. He has also been bounced around between all four lines, often playing most of his minutes on the third or fourth line.
Yakupov seems to have lost some identity at this point in the season. Aside from playing on the second PP unit, he does not appear to know his role at the moment. He is certainly not a checker, and playing him with players like Mike Brown or Eric Belanger in the bottom six is not going to make him productive.
Yakupov is a sniper, pure and simple. His biggest asset is his ability to score goals, and he needs to be with offensive players to do so.
No one is saying that he needs to take big minutes away from the likes of Hall, Eberle, Hemsky, Gagner or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but there are certainly some minutes to be found, and a combination where Yakupov can be an asset every night.
After all, the team is already last in scoring five-on-five — what’s the harm in giving one of their most dangerous weapons more time on the ice?