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In for a Penny, In for a Pound: The Nail Yakupov Conundrum

PREFACE: I realize that Yakupov has already been traded to the St. Louis Blues, but in the interest of my sanity, I’ve decided not to rewrite what’s already been written and saved, since most of this article still applies.

The word “bust” is an interesting term. No, not in that way you hormonal teenagers, you. I mean the sporting version, defined as a person or athlete who did not make a difference at the highest level of play in any meaningful way.

Now, to be fair, there’s only so many NHL positions available and yet there’s 200+ kids drafted every year as well as countless others who have gone undrafted with legitimate NHL prospects. Being a bust does not reflect poorly on a player’s personality or work ethic at all (unless you legitimately have problems with such attributes). It’s just the reality; with such a numbers-crunching game, unless you are the very best of the very best, generally you will not get the opportunity to make your mark in the best hockey league in the world.

Nail Yakupov, once adjudged to be THE very best of the best (not quite a Pokémon reference, but I was tempted for sure), is about 2 steps away from joining so many others under that unfortunate label judging by this very cryptic Ryan Rishaug radio interview.

Now I’m not one to shovel dirt on someone while they’re down, but this is a very intriguing storyline development, coming out of a franchise whose darkest of many dark years yielded a first-line talent (who was turned into Adam Larsson, which could be a great move or a really unfortunate one), a second-line talent who still has some potential left to be reached, and Yakupov.

This is a guy who probably doesn’t fit many hockey stereotypes in terms of how he approaches the game on or off the ice. In some cases, you could argue that’s a good thing. In his case, it’s just another stone for people to throw.

And there are many different levels of reaction to the news that Nail Yakupov is basically available for the hockey equivalent of a tuna sandwich and a bottle of Fresca (that stuff is gross, don’t even get me started). Some people blame the Oilers for squandering a 1st overall pick, developing what should have been a major asset into a flawed player with no confidence. They’re not wrong. Some are simply glad that such a player is no longer awarded a spot on the team by default, pointing out the fact that Yakupov being expendable means that the Oilers have actually acquired at least 4 players better than him on the right wing, which bodes well for their depth and future competitiveness. They’re not wrong either.

Quite honestly, I really don’t care either way. But it does intrigue me that in an era of drafting where NHL scouting is the most accurate it’s ever been, Yakupov managed to pull the wool over almost everyone’s eyes (well, at the very least 3 faces). Yakupov, even if he manages to climb back into form, is still without question the worst 1st overall pick in nearly 2 decades, and possibly even longer than that. The next worst 1st pick since the 2005 lockout is a dubious dogfight between a borderline number 1/2 center and a number 3 defenseman. Still highly serviceable players, as opposed to a guy who cannot beat out 3 other players at his position, one of them a tryout player and the other two being rookies.

That being said, as this should be stated while knocking heavily on some wood, Yakupov still has potential to be a contributor. The biggest question is whether or not the issues that dog his game are fixable, and whether or not anyone has the time and patience to let him work through them. Because it’s no longer the Oilers who have that kind of rope.

Let’s take a look at Yakupov’s HERO Chart:

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This chart does tell us that from a shot-metric and point production standpoint, Yakupov is pretty average at best. What it doesn’t tell you is that Yakupov’s point production per 60 has dropped every season year-over year, likely because his stats were equalizing over a 3-year period.

I don’t think those are pretty numbers, especially for a $2.5 million cap hit. Generally flawed young offense-first forwards, say, like Ryan Spooner, put up quality points per 60, even if their shot metrics remain below average.

Yakupov does not. That is alarming because if he can’t produce offense, then he really has no other use, because he’s not a defensive whiz nor a capable transition player. Both those traits require hockey sense or vast amounts of experience, neither of which Yakupov possesses in strong quantity.

The one saving grace is that for all of Yakupov’s faults, his shot metrics have actually improved marginally since his rookie season. So maybe all he needs is a change of scenery. If you commit to him, you might as well commit 100%, because he’s a classic buy low option now. “In for a penny, in for a pound” would be in full effect here if any GM or franchise wanted to actually help him develop into a useful NHLer.

On the other hand, there are very few teams who have the time or opportunity to commit to him like that. Most teams are in win-now mode, with little room for a player who doesn’t understand basic positioning. Other teams already have younger, more malleable options that they have to focus on. And the tight cap knocks off still more teams, teams who would love to add a young player due to a weaker prospect pool, but who are unable to afford Yakupov’s salary.

The Oilers really screwed the pooch on this one for a multitude of reasons. Number 1 being that they’ve kept him with their team about 1 and a half years longer than they should have, not only for Yakupov’s sake but for theirs. By continuing to invest valuable time and resources into Nail Yakupov’s development, they’ve fallen into the classic sunk cost fallacy mindset of, “Well we’ve already come this far, if we lose him now we might live to regret it”.

By waiting for a breaking point, by being too afraid to potentially lose a trade (not ACTUALLY lose, but the mere possibility of it), Yakupov’s value has finally bottomed out. The Oilers will receive little, if anything, for him in a trade or waiver claim. They’ve also wasted some of Yakupov’s prime development years, years in which he could have gotten more development, instead of hanging in limbo; it’ll likely cost him millions of dollars in potential earnings.

It’s a shame, because by all accounts Yakupov is not a bad person. But he doesn’t fit the Oilers dressing room, he no longer fits into their future plans, and he no longer has that elite scoring potential we assumed he had back when he was drafted. Now we hope that he can put up decent 2nd line numbers. emphasis on hoping.

Who knows, maybe the new Las Vegas team will find him an interesting expansion selection. Something tells me that won’t be the case, and that Nail Yakupov will have to climb back up the mountain the hard way.

-Evan

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