a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Saturday, 10 January 2015

01/11/15 The Problem With Nail Yakupov

Let me start by saying that this isn't going to be another article about how bad Nail Yakupov has been. Because he's a former first overall pick I never thought I'd be in this position, but this is a player that I'm really rooting for to find success. His strong game and two points against Chicago were a tall drink of water in an otherwise dry and cracked desert of a season.

But I am also interested in finding out what might be going wrong with his performance overall. Stats alone can't illustrate the problem, although I've pored over them and I'll show you what I've found. I've decided to take two approaches: the tangible statistical side, and the intangible mental side. Hopefully, we'll be able to better understand the problems with the player and how best to correct them. After all, this is a guy who scored 80 goals in 107 OHL games, not Patrik Stefan who had 16 goals 58 games in the now-defunct IHL.

The Many Numbers Involved

Okay, so for all the stats nerds like me there are some interesting things to learn about Yakupov's career, but even if you don't normally give a damn about the numbers it's interesting to see what's going on from that angle. For context on the whole thing, let's see how Yakupov has produced:

Yakupov's Point Production (Per 60 Minutes)

2012-13 2.20 4.20 0
2013-14 1.43 2.63 0
2014-15 0.73 2.18 0

It's pretty clear that we're looking at a decline in production each season, which is nothing we don't already know. At first glance it appears that his powerplay production is the culprit, but his even strength Points/60 has actually dropped more. The question is: why?

Yakupov's Most Common 5x5 Forward Linemates By Season

2012-13 Sam Gagner Magnus Paajarvi Ales Hemsky
2013-14 Sam Gagner Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Jordan Eberle
2014-15 Mark Arcobello Leon Draisaitl David Perron

In each year, Yakupov played the most 5x5 minutes with the player on the left. Those saying that Yakupov hasn't had a fair shake in terms of linemates are correct this season. The quality of his forward linemates has plummeted this year; David Perron is a distant third behind Draisaitl. But what of 2013-14? The two best centers available and Jordan Eberle as linemates. A sophomore slump, perhaps?

Yakupov's Most Common 5x4 Forward Linemates By Season

2012-13 Sam Gagner Jordan Eberle Magnus Paajarvi
2013-14 Ales Hemsky Sam Gagner David Perron
2014-15 Leon Draisaitl David Perron Teddy Purcell

It's a similar story to the even strength linemates. Yakupov got some good linemates last season but has had a major drop off this year. The powerplay is clicking at just 13.7% this year, which is a drop from 17% last year and 20.1% the year before that.

Oilers Goals For By Year, and Yakupov's Contributions

2012-13 2.56 25%
2013-14 2.43 12%
2014-15 2.24 11.7%

What we see here is that as a team the Oilers are scoring less per game in each of the last three years. Yakupov's contribution was hugely inflated in his rookie season, but has remained constant in the last two. Part of the problem is that the team simply isn't scoring as much. Why is that?

Oilers' Team Shooting Percentage By Year (All Situations)

2012-13 9.57 26.8
2013-14 9.01 26.9
2014-15 8.09 27.6

As a team the Oilers' shooting percentage has dropped by a percent and a half since Yakupov was a rookie, even though they're shooting a bit more each game. The Oilers have been unlucky in scoring lately (as if we didn't know that already), so that's part of the reason that the production of every player is down, including Yakupov.

Yakupov's ice time has remained fairly constant in each season at about fourteen and a half minutes, which is actually quite strange given that he's a first overall pick in his third season. As a point of comparison, fellow winger Taylor Hall averaged over eighteen minutes per game in his rookie year, and was up to almost nineteen minutes by his third year.

I'm prepared to say that Yakupov was in a bit of a sophomore slump in his second year, because his linemates improved and he did not. But might there be a reason for that?

The picture at the top of this page is of a player that Oilers fans likely do not recognize. Remember how excited Yakupov used to be when he scored a goal? When is the last time you saw an Oilers player so thrilled to score? That's gone now.

At the time of his fantastic game-tying goal against the Kings, and his slide down the ice in celebration, Shawn Horcoff said of Yakupov:

"He just loves the game. He's got a youthful exuberance about him. He just loves to play and he just loves to score goals."

How dare a hockey player show how much he enjoys scoring goals? The world of the NHL certainly didn't like it. A truly ridiculous amount of controversy sprang up, and Yakupov learned that it's not appropriate to enjoy scoring that much.

And then his confidence took another hit.

Dallas Eakins and Nail Yakupov certainly had their differences early on, with the former first overall pick scratched more than once in his second year, breaking 18 minutes of ice time in a game only four times, and at one point he played just over 31 minutes over FOUR GAMES. By November, Yakupov's agent, Igor Larionov, was publicly demanding answers from the Oilers about how his client was being used, and even said if the Oilers aren't happy with Yakupov they'd be open to a trade.

Yes, Eakins and Yak had a rocky start.

Eakins admitted on leaving town that he got ahead of himself system-wise. He demanded more of his group than they were capable of when he got them, which led to spectacular failure. And he certainly seemed to demand more from Nail Yakupov.

Except Yakupov was never projected to be an all-around talent. There's nothing wrong with learning some defensive responsibility, but unfortunately the fixation on what Yak was always doing wrong seems to have sapped his confidence in what he was doing right.

Fans are a little spoiled in Edmonton by Hall and Nugent-Hopkins, two rare talents that we ready to star right out of the box. Those two are the exception, not the rule. Forget where Yakupov was drafted for a moment and consider that most prospects need time to mature. They need to be allowed to fail at certain things and have the coach put them out again anyway. Yakupov hasn't had that luxury. For a year and a half he's been taught that he can't be trusted in situations that matter, like late in a game when he tied it up against Los Angeles as a rookie, or in overtime or the shootout.

The team's scoring has declined as a whole, and Yakupov has dipped along with it. He's a different player than the excited young man who first came into the NHL - not only is his confidence shot, but it seems that his joy in the game has diminished as well. Losing 2/3 of the time probably hasn't helped in that regard, and the lack of scoring hurts too.

I have to say I find it funny when people call Yakupov a bust after 150 games or so from a kid who just turned 21 in October. I can scarcely imagine a worse situation for him to start his career. It would be a mistake to give up on him now.

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