Nail Yakupov Is Bent, Not Broken

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It’s all about confidence with Nail Yakupov.

As a rookie in 2013, Yakupov was confident enough to have a pretty successful first season in the National Hockey League, but a coaching change in the following offseason contributed to gradually diminishing the young forward’s confidence, until he became one of the scapegoats of a struggling Edmonton Oilers team.

Yakupov played a total of 94 games with Dallas Eakins as his head coach, and it wasn’t pretty. After a spirited rookie season under head coach Ralph Krueger, Yakupov’s offensive production took a significant hit, and his plus-minus inflated to a ludicrous -46 during the Eakins era.

This was not supposed to happen. Sure, the struggles were expected, but nothing to this embarrassing extent.

In the several months leading up to the 2012 NHL Draft, Yakupov, the young Russian Sarnia Sting sensation, was continuously compared to Pavel Bure, “The Russian Rocket,” and unanimously considered by scouts and hockey analysts as the clear number-one pick. The Oilers listened. For the third year in a row, the Oilers made the popular choice and drafted Yakupov first overall, adding yet another young, talented forward to the already young, thick Oil mix.

Since that proud June 2012 day in Pittsburgh, Yakupov and the Oilers have experienced many promising highs, and tons of threatening lows.

Yakupov’s rookie season—limited to only 42 games due to injuries and the most recent lockout—was promising. The Russian rookie, bursting with energy and potential, scored 17 times and collected 31 points, finishing the season strong, and tying the eventual Calder Memorial Trophy winner, Jonathan Huberdeau, for the lead in rookie scoring.

Despite typical fears of the mythical sophomore jinx, Yakupov was expected to continue where he left off in 2013-2014. However, as we all know now, the exact opposite happened. After becoming a healthy scratch at the end of last season, Yakupov’s confidence was destroyed, and his struggles continued this season, culminating with many “experts” denouncing him as a first-overall bust, and with long-time Oilers blogger Jonathan Willis comparing him to Alexandre Daigle—the Ottawa Senator’s infamous first-overall bust of the 1990s.

All this ridicule was senseless and unfair. A piece of the puzzle seemed to be missing. The change in Yakupov’s confidence was not immediate, but as soon as Eakins was fired, and interim head coach Todd Nelson took over, there was an underlying feeling that Yakupov had seen his darkest days.

Yakupov’s increasing confidence was not evident until the day after the Willis blog post, when Nelson gave Yakupov his first ever shootout attempt in-game against Roberto Luongo and the Florida Panthers on January 17th. Yakupov confidently swooped in on Luongo, outwaiting the veteran goalie and wristing the puck in, past the blocker of the falling netminder. He would be the only player on either team to score in the shootout, helping the Oilers win their first game on the road in over two months.

It’s hard not to blame all of this previous failure on Eakins. Although it did take Yakupov a few games to shake off his funk, he looks like an entirely different player under the tutelage of Nelson. Instead of benching the young man every time he makes a mistake, Nelson shoves Yakupov back on the ice for opportunities to make up for his mistakes.

Nelson’s strategy is working. The coach also attributes Yakupov’s improved play to increasing confidence.

“Anytime you get a few goals and points, you gain more confidence,” Nelson explained to the Edmonton Journal, “But I think he is simplifying his game. He’s keeping things simple and then when he has an opportunity to shoot the puck, he is.”

In the same interview, Nelson credited the pairing of Yakupov with newly acquired centreman, Derek Roy, as a “huge” influencer to the young winger’s game.

“Derek’s been excellent with Nail,” Nelson said, “You can see them really have a kinship on the ice. Anytime they come off after a shift, there’s always a conversation on what they could do better.”

Before the Oilers current losing streak, Yakupov had scored four goals as part of a six-game point streak. Deven Dubnyk and the Minnesota Wild ruined the streak, when the Oilers came out flat, and were shutout 4-0 this past Friday.

But even when his team is struggling, Yakupov continues to exude his rediscovered confidence, which is something that did not happen in his rookie season. Jonathan Willis of the Edmonton Journal identified Yakupov as “the only Oilers forward with any jump in loss to Wild.”

The next night, in another loss to the Anaheim Ducks, Yakupov was noticeably the most enthusiastic Oilers player on the ice. Early in the first period, after the Oilers had wasted a powerplay by bobbling and giving away the puck several times, Yakupov created a dangerous scoring chance when he sped into the offensive zone with the puck on his stick, busted down the wing and cut the puck out of the corner to the net. He got himself back onto the score sheet when he assisted on Teddy Purcell’s goal early in the second period, to tie the game at ones. Yakupov had another two chances to tie the game in the final moments of the third period.

Yes, Yakupov’s confidence is back. It’s not a numbers game right now. His stats have only recently improved, and there’s still room for progression. However, anyone who has followed this Oilers team for the past two seasons will have noticed an upswing in Yakupov’s demeanour and energy on the ice. He has always possessed undeniable skill and talent. Now, Yakupov is a legitimate threat on the powerplay, his frantic speed is creating scoring chances every night, and his creativity and vision are opening up the ice for his teammates and for himself. For Yakupov, it’s all about confidence.


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