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Oilers' Yakupov aims to build on late-season success

by Derek Van Diest / NHL.com

EDMONTON -- Edmonton Oilers right wing Nail Yakupov is hoping a strong finish to 2014-15 carries over into this season.

Yakupov excelled after Edmonton made a coaching change Dec. 15, replacing Dallas Eakins with Todd Nelson, and showed the attributes that made him the No. 1 pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.

"It's good to finish the season pretty well," Yakupov said this week during Perry Pearn's 3-on-3 Hockey Camp in Edmonton. "I was really excited to play hockey again and to come to the rink every day. I was really excited about that and I'm glad I was able to get back on track. I was also happy to be asked to play in the [2015 IIHF] World Championship at the end of the year, even though I couldn't play because [of an injured hip]."

Yakupov scored 14 goals and established NHL career highs with 19 assists and 33 points in 81 games last season. He had four goals and four assists in 31 games playing for Eakins, then had 10 goals and had 15 assists in 50 games under Nelson.

His increase in production also coincided with the arrival of center Derek Roy, who was acquired in a trade with the Nashville Predators on Dec. 29.

"Derek Roy really helped me a lot," Yakupov said. "He changed my game a little bit, and I think I helped him too. It was good to have a veteran center that had played 10, 12 years in the League. He's very good."

Playing on a line with Roy, Yakupov rediscovered his scoring touch; in the final 29 games of the season he had nine goals and had 11 assists.

"It took me five or six games to get used to playing with him and to get to know each other," Yakupov said. "It was tough sometimes, he would yell at me on the bench sometimes, but it was worth it. I was really happy to be able to play with him."

Roy, 32, remains a free agent while the Oilers added center Connor McDavid with the first pick of the 2015 draft and signed free agent center Mark Letestu.

"I wish him good luck, I'm sure he'll find a team in the NHL because he's a really good player," Yakupov said of Roy. "I think he'll help out a team and I think he'll stay in this League for a longer time."

Heading into the 2015-16 season, Yakupov said he's looking forward to an increased role with new linemates. Along with McDavid and Letestu, Edmonton also has Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Anton Lander in the middle, as well as Leon Draisaitl, their top pick in the 2014 draft. Yakupov is confident new coach Todd McLellan will find an ideal linemate for him this season.

"It's going to take some time to get used to each other, but that's why you have training camp and exhibition games," Yakupov said. "That's enough time to get to know each other, and we have to start from there. I'm looking forward to the season. I think it's going to be an exciting season for everybody with all the changes we've made."

One question entering the season for Yakupov is whether he can be more reliable defensively. He was minus-35 last season, and is a minus-72 in his three NHL seasons.

"I think I'm getting better and have to continue to get better in my zone," Yakupov said. "It's not just about offense. You have to play well defensively too. You have to be able to play back and forth. It's not easy, but you can't stop when you lose the puck and just coast back on the backcheck."

Yakupov said a strong defensive game will translate into more offensive production this season. Having signed a new two-year contract with the Oilers in April, Yakupov knows this is an important season for him.

"Every year is a big year, but I think this year it's really important to have a good season and to try and help the team make the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs," Yakupov said. "Even though I'm trying to be better defensively, I'm still a forward and it's my job to do something offensively. There are guys that are out there to be good defensively and others that have to provide offence. It's about playing to your strength, whether it's shooting or using your speed or blocking shots, you have to do your job. You have to do what you can to help and bring what you can to the team."

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