Nail Yakupov In Depth: St. Louis Blues Next Star?

The St. Louis Blues acquired Nail Yakupov from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Zach Pochiro and a conditional third round pick in 2017. If Yakupov scores more than 15 goals in the 2016-17 season, the Oilers instead receive the Blues’ second round pick in 2018.

Nail Yakupov In Depth: Blues Next Star?

The trade could be a steal for the Blues. Due to lack of production on the ice, and issues with coaches, the Oilers were eager to trade away Yakupov. He has not had the best numbers for being a first overall pick. With all the young talent in Edmonton, he wasn’t proving his worth, and the Oilers were unlikely to protect him in the upcoming expansion draft.

Because of all that, the Blues received a young forward with potential, in exchange for a conditional draft pick, and an ECHL forward, who probably won’t even see much AHL time throughout the rest of his career. Yakupov, with two points in the Blues home opener is already developing chemistry with some of the Blues players, and receiving strong reviews from his new head coach, Ken Hitchcock. On top of that, Blues star Vladimir Tarasenko has been friends with Yakupov for a while and vouched for the acquistion.

Strengths

Yakupov is a very well-rounded offensive player. He has a good release on his shot, and sees the ice well enough to make good passes. His biggest attributes, however, are his speedy skating and his stickhandling. St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock commented on this in an interview after practice saying, “What he does best is he shoots and he gets himself to a scoring position… we know that.”

Yakupov fits very well with the Blues’ third line. He is playing with Dmitri Jaskin or Magnus Paajarvi and Patrik Berglund, a line that has already had some results and should be continue to provide secondary scoring. This line works better than most of the lines he played with in Edmonton. While he did get some time with Connor McDavid last year and produced well, this was limited due to injuries to both McDavid and Yakupov. The rest of last season, and throughout his time in Edmonton, he struggled to find chemistry with players like Benoit Pouliot,  Zack Kassian and Mark Letestu. He just didn’t gel well with the other linemates he played with. Jaskin and Berglund seem to fit better with his style of play.

Linemates

Jaskin has a good shot, although he’s in the same ‘underperforming-boat’ as Yakupov. Paajarvi has speed and can work a north-south game. He is another former Oilers draft pick who has never lived up to his draft status. Meanwhile, Berglund has done well over the past few seasons and will definitely be the leader of that line. Jaskin and Yakupov are both speedy skaters with good hands and even better shots. If they can bond well together, they should help each other out. 15 goals is within reach for Yakupov if he can perform as expected with this line. At the same time, a good number of assists won’t be too far-fetched. This might finally be the breakout season Jaskin’s talent has promised.

Overall, Yakupov’s good hands and good skating fits him in well with the St. Louis up-tempo style of play. Players like Jaden Schwartz and Robby Fabbri have already succeeded with many of the same skills. Hitchcock really emphasized that these are the traits he, and the other St. Louis coaches, want to work on. “We want to enhance his skill set,” Hitchcock said. “We’re going to really push him to do the things he does well. We want him doing it every day and having the confidence to do it every day.” Hitchcock went on to say that the organization has experience dealing with offensively-focused players before, citing Fabbri as a specific example, and he knows how to go about making them better.

Weaknesses

Where Yakupov really struggles, is when he doesn’t have the puck. In the defensive zone, Yakupov seems lost. That’s one of the downsides that lead to him being booted out of Edmonton. Hitchcock knows about this weakness, and knows how to go about improving it.

Hitchcock said he wanted to start out the season by working with Yakupov on his strengths, and then work on making him a better defensive player. “The stuff without the puck is going to take time and we’re in no hurry. We’re not going to turn a player into a defensive specialist and we don’t plan on doing that.”

One thing the Blues have that the Oilers didn’t, is the ability to take their time with Yakupov. The Blues has one of the strongest defensive lineups in the league, and they have forwards who are very good in the defensive zone as well, such as Paul Stastny and their entire fourth line. They have the time to make sure Yakupov isn’t rushed to perform, and is confident in all three zones of the ice.

Off-Ice Issues

However, Yakupov was also a drama queen in Edmonton. He had problems in the locker room, and that’s the major reason he was dealt away so cheap. This shouldn’t be such a problem for the Blues, as Yakupov is coming into the city already being friends with Tarasenko. “We never played together on the same team when [we were in] juniors. We just started talking maybe a couple, three years ago, and [went] for dinners together. He’s a great player and [has a] good personality. I think he will do well here,” the star winger told NHL.com.

If he’s right, Yakupov will fit in fine with the Blues, and there’s nothing to worry about. This comes as a relief to the Blues locker room and coaching staff, as everyone has their eye on David Perron, who was traded to the Oilers in 2013 because of locker room problems. With Alex Pietrangelo becoming the new captain, the last thing he wants is a team that can’t function off the ice, because that translates to problems on ice.

Challenges

For the Blues, the main challenge right now is making sure Yakupov comes to St. Louis and blends well with the team. They need to find the right linemates for him, and make sure he feels comfortable on the ice with the team. This is crucial, as being traded to a new team can take its toll on a player.

Yakupov seems excited to join the Blues, though. He said, “This is a top team in the League, and to be there and to win games, I think it’s going to be good. I don’t know what winning is, and I’d like to feel that, and I think this is a team where I can feel it.”

This is a clear shot on his old team, but also shows his excitement to join the Blues. He hopes he can help them have yet another winning season. They have a good chance at accomplishing this.

Role

Having another scorer in the bottom six is more important than some might think. Magnus Paajarvi and Jaskin haven’t been able to provide secondary scoring fo the Blues, and because of this the Blues needed another offensive threat to play on the wing with Berglund. Assuming he can play  to the best of his ability, Yakupov will fill this role just fine; although it’s not very likely he moves up to a first or second line role this season.

As the season progresses, and as the next few seasons come, the biggest challenge will land on the coach’s shoulders. That will be the task of making sure Yakupov grows as a defensive player. Yes, the Blues said they weren’t in any hurry to make him better in his own zone, but to play at the NHL level one must play a two-way game. Hitchcock is right when he says, “you won’t make a 200-foot player overnight. That takes time,” but it still needs to happen.

Of course, this should be easier for Yakupov to learn considering the circumstances of the team. He shouldn’t feel as much pressure in St. Louis. The coaches really want him to feel comfortable and confident over anything else. He has the potential to be a necessity for the Blues, if he just harnesses it.

So Far

In two games with the Blues so far, Yakupov has a goal and an assist. Both points came in the second game, which was also the home opener against the Minnesota Wild.

In the first game, against the Chicago Blackhawks, Yakupov wasn’t himself. He seemed slow, confused, and overall uncomfortable on the ice. He wasn’t seeing the ice as well as he normally does, and because of his slow play he only saw ten minutes of ice time.

Home Opener

Yakupov made up for the first game entirely, during the home opener. He scored the second goal of the game for the Blues, putting them ahead 2-1. Yakupov was in the neutral zone and received a pass from Colton Parayko, who was still in their zone. Yakupov turned around after getting the pass, and flew into the Wild’s zone. He took a slap shot from the top of the circles that hit Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk’s glove but still went in.

On the goal, Yakupov showed multiple areas of his skill set. He showed off his speed as he came into the zone, then let off a bullet of a shot. These are two things that the Blues want to harness from Yakupov. They are also the two things Blues fans should expect him to be doing a lot.

The same thing goes for when he assisted Paajarvi’s goal. Yakupov saw the ice well and dished to Paajarvi, who was in Jaskin’s spot for the night. It was a beautiful pass; which was also a bullet. It left Paajarvi with a good looking at the net, and he buried it behind Dubnyk.

2016-17 Predictions

The Blues want Yakupov to be able to use his speed, strong shot, and good vision of the ice to benefit the team. He showed off those skills Thursday night, and will need to use them the rest of the year. He also seemed more comfortable with Paajarvi than he did Jaskin, which may give Paajarvi an excuse to get more playing minutes than Jaskin did.

If Yakupov can play to the best of his potential, like he did last night, he should be an effective scorer for the Blues. Lucky enough for the Oilers, he can hit that 15 goal plateau, or more. This should be a very good season for the 23-year-old, and might finally be a breakout campaign.

 

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