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IN DEPTH: Bounce-Back Yak

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
Nail Yakupov #10 of the Edmonton Oilers steps onto the ice prior to the game against the Anaheim Ducks on February 21, 2015 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Nail Yakupov was free and clear in the slot with a chance to tie the game. Detroit had mounted a 2-1 lead, but the Oilers winger had an opportunity to erase the deficit. Yakupov couldn’t connect on a wide-open chance at a one-timer, missing out on such a small window.

Yakupov went to the bench, visibly frustrated.

“That was really frustrating because it was 2-1 and that was a really good chance to tie the game. Especially, because that was a really good spot for me where I can one-time the puck,” Yakupov said. “I don’t know what happened, so I was really, really pissed about it.”

Detroit took a 3-1 lead when Teemu Pulkkinen scored his third goal of the season. Here, a young player can find himself at a crossroads. He can let that missed opportunity eat away at him, or he can respond and capitalize at the next available juncture.

“He was definitely disappointed that he fanned on that (first) one,” Oilers Interim Coach Todd Nelson said. “But he made sure on the second one he got a hold of it, and he did.”

This time, Yakupov ripped a one-timer past Jimmy Howard for his 10th goal of the season.

“We had a really good setup on the power play,” Yakupov recalled. “Two guys did a really good job in front to screen the goalie. That was really good… If I’ve got a chance to shoot, I’ve got to shoot it. I’ve got a good shot and I’ve got to use it all the time.”

Unfortunately for the Oilers, Yakupov’s goal at 18:05 of the third wasn’t enough. Detroit scored two empty-netters and won 5-2, in what would be one of the Oilers five losses on the road trip. Despite the loss, the response of Yakupov is encouraging for Edmonton, as they’re hoping the 21-year-old lives up to the potential that made him the first-overall pick in 2012.

“He’s putting those bad things aside where if things don’t work out it’s not haunting him his next shift,” Nelson said. “He’s putting it to the side and now he’s playing a lot more confident hockey. When the puck came over again, he just had to bear down on it and it was a great shot.”

Yakupov bounced back. That goal was really a microcosm of the young winger’s season so far. Over the course of the second half of this year, Yakupov has bounced back.

High-end offensive skill helped make Yakupov the top pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. He hit the ground running in the shortened lockout season, scoring a team-high 17 goals in 48 games. He caught fire the last week of his rookie season with six goals in the final three games, finishing with 31 points. He tied for the league lead in rookie scoring with Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau.

Then came the sophomore slump in his production. Yakupov managed just 24 points (11-13-24) in 63 games last season. He also suffered a pair of injuries that shortened his year.

Oilers Sr. Director of Player Development Rick Carriere watched as Yakupov transitioned from a rookie with a scoring touch to a second-year player struggling to get on the score sheet.

Nail Yakupov #10 of the Edmonton Oilers lines up for a face off a in game against the Ottawa Senators on November 13, 2014 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
“From what I’ve seen over the last year with some of his struggles, his first year was an abbreviated season. Everybody was excited,” Carriere said at the end of last season. “He started the year in Russia, he came over here, he was in good shape, he had played some games already and he comes in, jumps in the NHL and he’s ready to play. This season, start to finish, was probably a long year for a guy in his first full season in North America and the National Hockey League. It’s a long year for a good league that doesn’t forgive mistakes. There’s some things I think he’s working at and he’s improving in.”

Then came this season, which got off to a similar start to last year. Yakupov had just four goals and four assists in his first 34 games. The second half of the season has been a revival of sorts for the young winger. He’s bounced back.

In his last 34 games, Yakupov has doubled that production. He has seven goals and 10 assists in that span. The majority of that production, however, has come in the last month and some change.

Yakupov has six goals and six assists for 12 points in his last 15 games. He tied a career high point streak at six games from February 9-18. He is 2-1-3 in his last three games.

After some early struggles, the Russian winger’s confidence is soaring. He’s driving the net and unleashing his dangerous one-timer with more frequency.
Take the Oilers last game for example. In Columbus, Yakupov struck with a power-play blast from the top of the circle.

“The last month has been really good for me,” Yakupov said. “I’m just working hard and sticking with it.”

It’s been quite the turnaround for Yakupov, and he can thank two newcomers for their support.

The real turnaround in Yakupov’s game coincided with the arrival of Derek Roy. Acquired in a trade with Nashville, Roy came to the Oilers with over 700 games of NHL experience. Having an experienced centre on his line is something Yakupov himself had not experienced this season, that is, until the arrival of Roy.

“He’s just a good centre,” Yakupov said. “He does everything right. He’s been in the league many years and he has really good position as a centre. I think he’s a really good centre and that’s what I needed, it’s pretty key for me. What I try to do is get open and shoot the puck. Derek is never selfish, he never keeps the puck all to himself. If a guy is open he’ll always give it to him. That’s a really good player.”

The Roy effect has been strong. Yakupov learned from the veteran, and started to post points as a result.

Photo by Andy Devlin | Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club
“He helps me around all the time,” Yakupov said. “We kind of are talking every shift and he just tells me what’s better to do and of course I’m going to listen to that guy. He’s saying the right things. It’s easy to talk to this guy, we can talk about everything. I think that’s very good, I’m really happy with him at centre.”

The connection between the two has been so strong that when Taylor Hall was sidelined with his ankle injury, and Nelson considered moving Yakupov up to play with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the winger requested not to change lines. Nelson obviously has the final say but, for chemistry’s sake, he left Yakupov and Roy together.

“It has been huge for us,” Nelson said. “Derek has been excellent with Nail. You can see them really have a kinship on the ice and he’s been excellent. Anytime they come off the ice after a shift there is conversation about what they can do better. Or Nail might say, ‘I’m open here.’ They have a discussion about it. It’s a great relationship, he’s done a great job with Nail in supporting him and Yak loves playing with him.”

Roy, as a veteran, has taken Yakupov under his wing in a way. The two are constantly talking on the bench and on the ice. Roy is always dishing out advice.

“I just like that he goes into every game and skates. That’s what I try and tell him every game,” Roy said. “I try to implement into his game that if he’s skating then good things are happening. If he’s skating then he’s backing off the defencemen. If he’s skating then he’s scaring the other opponents. He’s doing a good job with that.”

Yakupov’s progression has been linked to Roy, but also to Nelson. Yakupov says the coach’s trust in him as been a huge boost to his confidence and has helped lead to his resurgence.

Photo by Andy Devlin | Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club
“Nelly gives me really good support and he just trusts me,” Yakupov said. “He lets me play so I’ve just kind of got my game back. That’s why I feel better. When I play, I want to play better than I played (before) and I’ve just got to stick with it and just keep going.”

Trust is one thing Yakupov really values. Acknowledging that he’s still young, and that, “it’s never a perfect game for a player (and) sometimes people can make a mistake,” Yakupov has been pleased with the communication between him and Nelson.

“I think that’s the key and a really important thing when the coach trusts the players,” Yakupov said. “He is very confident with the players. We can always talk to Nelly. If we’ve got to change something, we always can talk to him. He listens to us and we listen to him too. He gives us really big respect and we’ve got to give it back.”

But Nelson puts Yakupov’s performance on him, saying the winger has developed more confidence in his game.

“He’s playing pretty confident right now,” Nelson said. “Anytime you get a few goals and points you gain more confidence. But I think he’s simplifying his game, he’s keeping it simple and when he gets an opportunity to shoot the puck, he is. It’s just him keeping things simple and he’s realizing that when he stays with a simple game plan those offensive opportunities will present themselves.”

Yakupov is showing signs of the offensive skills that made him a top pick and he's working towards becoming a more complete player. It has the Oilers organization excited about what the future holds.

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 12: Nail Yakupov #10 of the Edmonton Oilers battles for the puck against Ben Lovejoy #12 of the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center on March 12, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
“We all see the promise now that we had when we drafted him,” Oilers General Manager Craig MacTavish said following the trade deadline. “ I had zero interest in trading Nail Yakupov. I think we’ve gone this far, we’ve got to see the end now. It has been some ups and downs, some sideways play and some head-scratching stuff and he’s on top of his game now. He shows all the assets that we saw when we drafted him: the speed, the physical  power, the shot, he’s making good plays with the puck and who knows what unlatches all that for him, but he’s really figured it out.”

This last handful of games, Yakupov has continued to show the confidence that Nelson, Roy and MacTavish see. The Oilers hope he continues to grow and develop, finishing strong. Yakupov hopes and expects the same.

Yakupov is a restricted free agent at the end of the season, but he hasn’t looked that far ahead. He wants to continue to produce points down the stretch to help the Oilers win a few games to close out the season.

“I’m not looking to the future,” Yakupov said. “I just want to play, work hard and we’ll see how it goes. I haven’t talked to anyone about next year. I need to finish hard anyway. We still have some games here. We can’t give up, we can’t lose every game.”

The Oilers are, however, looking to the future with Yakupov, monitoring his progress with understandable interest.

“He’s playing with confidence, he’s a hard-working guy and we’ve got to see how it finishes,” MacTavish said. “I have no question that Yak is going to continue to develop and he’s got a reference point of what he needs to do now because he’s hit a new level. I’m as curious as anybody to see where that level goes because I think it’s sky high."

From rookie success to sophomore struggles and then a return to success, Yakupov has bounced back. It’s on him to show how far he’s come and how far he’s yet to go.
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