The Case For Nail Yakupov

Nail Yakupov Ian Kucerak Agence QMI
Photo: Ian Kucerak Agence QMI

opinionThat title alone is going to cause a ruckus. When I first pondered the idea of the Washington Capitals trading for Yakupov over the years I instantly shook my head with a resounding “no”. Yakupov is an enigma, and not just because his first name is Nail. There is no question about his skill; you do not get drafted 1st overall with minimal talent. You also can’t doubt his passion; watch him every time he scores a goal or his team wins a game. You won’t find a happier player. He loves the NHL; when asked if he wanted to stay in the KHL he said his dream is to succeed on the NHL level.

Now, what has always been Yakupov’s problem is his attitude. His dedication to anything outside the offensive end of the ice is left to be desired and he is very outspoken about his dissatisfaction if things do not go his way. So why should the Caps take a flyer on trying to attain a player with such an attitude? It basically comes down to the similar way the Caps draft: always get a player with a high upside.

For being the first overall pick in 2012, Yakupov hasn’t done anything superb outside his rookie year. His first season he put up 31 points in the 48 game short NHL season due to the lock out (that would have average 53 points in a regular 82 game season). Following those seasons, he put up 24 points in 63 games, 33 in 81, and 23 in 60. So, over his 4 seasons of NHL work in an average 82 game schedule he would produce about 38 points. Not bad – but not great for a first overall pick. But, if there was ever a time to use context, it is now.

The Edmonton Oilers have been a dumpster fire since they reached the 2005-2006 finals and lost in game 7. Since then, in 10 seasons, the Oilers have made the playoffs a grand total of 0 times. Since 2010, they have had FOUR 1st overall picks, along with the 3rd overall, and a 7th overall. Even with all of those great picks they have amounted to nothing over the years, never even cracking the top 20 teams in the NHL. They are certainly on the uptick now with better management, coaching, and of course Connor McDavid. But it still doesn’t change the fact that Yakupov was brought up in an organization that had no idea how to develop talent, nor use it correctly. All of that is to say the stats that Yakupov has put up in his first four NHL seasons are not the best measurement of his full ability.

Take this for example: this season Yakupov averaged 14:13 time on ice per game, 8 other forwards spent more time on the ice then he did. In order, since his first year, Yakupov has had 8th, 7th, 7th, and 8th in average time on ice among all forwards. That basically means he has not been given consistent top 6 minutes his whole career. He spent less than 45% of his ice time with a legit top 6 centers, one of McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, or Draisaitl. By comparison, Eberle spent 80+% of this time with one of those 3 centers. To add, Yakupov had 17 even strength points last season, 14 of them came with one of those 3 centers listed above. Yet with his most common center, Mark Letestu, spending around 35% of even strength time with him, Yakupov had a grand total of 1 even strength point. How many even strength points would Yakupov put up by spending his whole season with a legit top 6 center? I’d have to think he would have least doubled his out put.

Click here to see Yakupov’s line production with his most common teammates.

A word that often comes with Yakupov is he’s “selfish” with the puck. That’s, obviously, a pretty bad thing but I think that is exactly what the Caps need. The Caps have a fair share of amazing-to-elite passers such as Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Johansson. But, they simply do not have enough players willing to pull the trigger. Even Oshie, who scored 26 goals this past season, could have scored 30+ if he shot when he had prime chances but decided to pass it off.

Yakupov would have averaged 173 shots last season if he played a full 82 game season. That was with 3rd line time on a team that didn’t have the puck much in the offensive zone (Oilers were 19th in possession with 49%). Those 173 shots would have been good for 5th on the Caps with only Ovechkin (20:19), Williams (16:39), Kuznetsov (17:25), and Oshie (18:58) in front of him. The common denominator with all of them (hint: look at their TOI – Time on Ice)? Yes! They are all top 6 players.

For kicks and giggles let’s say you give Yakupov the same amount of time of Williams; Yakupov would have averaged 203 shots. What about if you gave him Oshie’s spot? 226 shots. Both of those totals would have been good for 2nd on the team. Obviously, there are a lot of variances in those stats like power play, penalty kill, etc. But if Yakupov is given top 6 minutes on a great team like the Caps, there’s no reason he wouldn’t be a shot machine which is exactly what the Caps need. And real quick, Yakupov’s shooting percentage is almost 10%, so using those stats above, he would probably crack at least 20 goals, but that doesn’t include him playing with elite players like Backstrom and Kuznetsov – so possibly even more.

Now, the stats everyone wants to know about: possession! Yakupov hasn’t been absolutely amazing, he has averaged 49.4% in his career. But, when you consider the Oilers have averaged 48.9% while he’s been playing for them, it’s a good sign. It means he’s been playing better than what the rest of his team is doing, and remember, he’s doing this playing on a bad team’s 3rd line the majority of the time. His speed and shots help to generate possession and scoring chances, which the Caps need. Look at the chart below. You’ll notice all the other players in the top right putting up good possession numbers, at least good for the Oilers, are all top 6 players, no other player comes close, except Yakupov. Yes, he’s barely holding onto possession above average for the Oilers, but it’s mighty impressive when you consider most that time is in the bottom 6 with Mark Letestu; by the way he’s the the red (bad) bubble all the way to the left.

Player Usage Chart & Table

Another attractive aspect of Yakupov is that he is cheap. Supposedly, the asking price at the trade deadline was just a 2nd round pick and one analysis said the Oilers would probably have to settle for a 3rd round pick. It’s absolutely stunning that no young teams have taken a flyer on Yakupov for such a cheap price. Carolina, Arizona, Buffalo, Toronto, Colorado, and a handful of others have nothing to lose acquiring Yakupov. On top of that, his contract is 1 year at $2.5M until he is an RFA. There is no long term commitment AND it’s a contract year for him, which means you should see an extra gear kick in when he plays. Also, add that Yakupov is ONLY 22 years old; he is about to go into his prime. Just those 3 things alone: cheap to acquire, easy contract, and about to hit his prime should be enough for all teams to get him. Since we don’t have 2nd round picks for the next 2 seasons why not offer a 3rd and Galiev? Or if Caps can’t get Orlov under contract why not offer him? They could possibly get a little extra too, or even Schmidt. The point is, it shouldn’t be too complicated to acquire the talented Russian especially considering his teammate Taylor Hall, a top 5 LW in the league, was traded away for maybe a top 25 defensemen. It shouldn’t cost too much to get Yakupov off their hands.

Yakupov also has a connection to the Caps. He and Kuznetsov tore through the 2012 World Juniors together on the same line posting 13 and 9 points, respectively, in 7 games played. Yakupov also helped assist on two of three goals Kuznetsov netted in the game against Canada. Having that connection alone could really help Yakupov adjust here and be able to hit the ground running. A lot of people would want him on the 3rd line but he’s been there and as shown above it doesn’t help him, he needs top 6 minutes. Imagine a Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Yakupov line in the offensive zone or off the rush. But, it wouldn’t be terrible to see Backstrom centering him because the best Yakupov has ever looked was with Derek Roy, a veteran experienced player. But let’s not look too far ahead. Also don’t forget, the Caps are a team that has a couple Russian stars that are buying into a more all around system that Trotz is preaching. There’s no reason to think that the Caps can’t fit one more on their team and mold him into a better all around player.

There is, however, one reason I can see why the Caps shouldn’t acquire Yakupov and it’s the same reason why the Caps are probably hesitant on signing KHL free agent Vadim Shipachyov, it’s that this upcoming season is THE season for the Caps. Since the new millennia, the Caps have never had a bigger window to bring home the Cup. The season after the upcoming one has some major players hitting UFA and some players will need some raises so who knows how the team will look for the 2017-2018 season. If the Caps acquire Yakupov and he doesn’t work out they will have a player holding $2.5M of cap space for nothing, and rarely do teams win Cups with any position not being helpful. Should the Caps gamble on Yakupov, in probably, their most important year in their history? For me, I would take that gamble because the positives seems to outweigh the negatives. Yakupov is a young, very talented player about to hit his prime on a cheap one year deal that is a “prove it” type of season which seems to bring out the best in players. A new team and city with some familiar faces could be a huge turning point for him and the Caps could be the beneficiaries.

By Luke Adomanis

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