Nail Yakupov came into the 2013 NHL season with the Edmonton Oilers as one of the more hyped rookies to enter the league along with players like Mikael Granlund, Justin Schultz and Jonathan Huberdeau.
All four have had varying degrees of success this year, with Huberdeau as the current favourite to win the Calder Trophy.
In Edmonton, Yakupov’s debut season has been overshadowed somewhat by that of Schultz who, as hard as it is to believe, has garnered more media attention than the Russian dynamo. To be fair, Schultz also had the better start to the season and was one of the early odds-on favourites for the Calder.
Yakupov came in with the reputation and track record of a dynamic offensive threat and deadly sniper. He put up some goals early and did show a flair for big goals and the dramatic. Few will forget his almost end-to-end slide celebration after scoring a tying goal late against Dallas earlier this season.
Unfortunately, he went into various slumps following that where his offense was nowhere to be found. He had two separate stretches of nine and 15 games where he did not register a goal. He was also struggling in other aspects of the game and was frequently out of position.
It did not help that he was moved all over the line-up playing on all four lines and with different linemates each night.
He has started to show some consistency lately and more importantly, some confidence on the ice, being more aggressive in the offensive zone and putting more pucks to the net. He is still a work in progress defensively and will still turn the puck over more often than Oilers coaches would like, butx that area of his game is improving and he has made a commitment to work at it.
He has four goals in his last six games, and has been creating far more chances than before. Playing primarily on the third line with Shawn Horcoff, he gives the line-up depth and important secondary scoring.
He now has 10 goals on the year, which is third among NHL rookies. His -9 rating on the year will not be a stat that helps him, but he has put himself back in the Calder conversation, and could be a nominee at season’s end with a strong end to April.
The most important thing for the Oilers is that Yakupov appears to have gained some confidence back. For those that saw Yakupov play in junior or internationally, he was confident and assertive to the point of cockiness, and it worked for him. He is clearly a player that loves the game and when doing well, the joy is evident on his face.
That is a scene that was lost for long stretches during the year, and regardless of whether the Oilers sneak into the playoffs or not, both Yakupov and the team need him to finish strong as much for this season as going forward.