In June of 2012, the Edmonton Oilers chose Nail Yakupov with their third consecutive first overall draft pick. The Russian wunderkind was meant to lead the Oilers into a new golden age along with Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. However, concerns about his effort and playing style have brought his future into question.
Hall and Nugent-Hopkins are already bonafide stars, but Yakupov is starting to look like a potential bust. After posting 31 points and finishing fifth in Calder Memorial Trophy voting in his rookie year, the 20-year-old winger has regressed significantly. He has just one point in his first eight games, and rumor has it that he could be traded.
Bucky Gleason of the Buffalo News reported on October 16 that the Buffalo Sabres might be mulling a deal for Yakupov that could include want-away stars Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek. Both Buffalo big-shots are in the final year of their contracts, and the rebuilding Sabres are reluctant to watch the faces of their franchise walk without getting anything in return.
The 29-year-old Vanek enjoyed a spectacular season in 2013, notching 20 goals and 41 points in just 38 games. Miller didn’t fare so well at age 32. His 2.81 goals-against average was the worst of his career, but the 2010 Vezina Trophy winner might still represent a significant upgrade over Edmonton’s Devan Dubnyk.
It’s unlikely that the Oilers would agree to a deal without some assurance that Vanek and Miller would sign extensions in Edmonton, but there is some reason to believe that they might be shopping Yakupov despite his rookie success.
The Edmonton winger’s game reeks of immaturity. First-year head coach Dallas Eakins has already demoted him from the top-line, and Yakupov’s ice-time could be further curtailed moving forward.
Russian Olympic scout Igor Kravchuk recently tore into the Sochi hopeful with some biting criticism. In a provocative interview with Ottawa’s Team 1200 Radio he said, “[Yakupov] has to make [up] his mind… If he’s not going to change his game, then he has no future.”
Kravchuk elaborated by saying, “Obviously, from what I see, his team game is really, really poor. He tries to do a lot of things by himself and he has absolutely no defense and that’s what really concerns [me] as a scout. But if he’s going to listen to what the coach says, if he’s going to change his game, then he’s got a future.”
Following Yakupov’s final season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting, Bleacher Report’s Ryan O’Leary compared the super-skilled teenager to Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk. That comparison seems ill-advised today. Though Yakupov remains nimble on his skates and possesses a tremendously skilled stick, his three-zone game bears no resemblance to the highly respected Datsyuk.
Yakupov’s lack of defensive effort and his tendency to force things offensively make him wholly undeserving of seeing his name alongside that of his three-time Selke-winning countryman.
A better comparison might include Tyler Seguin. Chosen by the Boston Bruins just after Taylor Hall back in 2010, the highly-touted forward was traded to Dallas in July for Loui Eriksson and prospects. Seguin’s immaturity and offensive inconsistency were both motivating factors in the deal.
Like Yakupov, Seguin did enjoy one excellent offensive campaign before seeing his game go south. After a very disappointing 2013 season, the Bruins decided that he was a poor fit for their franchise. It could be time for Edmonton to do the same if they can find the right deal.
The Oilers have an abundance of talent up front, making a blockbuster trade plausible. Summer acquisition David Perron has adjusted nicely to life in Edmonton, and rookie Mark Arcobello has been a revelation with eight points in ten games.
Edmonton may already be regretting drafting forwards with all three of his top picks. With young stars Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner already in the top six, the Oilers are set on offense for years to come. The back-end of the team is another issue entirely.
Though Justin Schultz, Oscar Klefbom and 2013 draft pick Darnell Nurse ought to help improve the defense as they develop, a veteran shutdown presence would be a tremendous addition. Captain Andrew Ference is a great leader in the locker room but his best days on the ice are behind him.
An elite netminder would also be a big help at Rexall Place. Goalies Devan Dubnyk and Jason Labarbera are both sporting sub-.900 save-percentages this season. Their woeful play in net has undoubtedly led to the Ryan Miller speculation.
It’s hard to imagine that Miller is the right fit for the Oilers. The American goalie is off to a good start after a few down seasons, but his age and recent track-record make him a poor option for a team looking to be competitive for years to come. A younger player in net would be far more enticing.
General Manager Craig MacTavish likely regrets not making a move for Cory Schneider at June’s draft. New Jersey snapped up Schneider for a first round pick, meaning Yakupov could have easily returned the 27-year-old puck-stopper and then some.
If the Oilers do pursue Miller, they are probably better off avoiding Thomas Vanek. A Vanek swap would only add to the talent gap between the Oilers forwards and their defensive pairings.
Yakupov’s highlight reel goals could certainly tempt a rebuilding team into trading a defensive cornerstone. Considering Craig MacTavish can’t travel back in time and take Ryan Murray with the 2012 top pick, moving Yakupov for a defenseman is the fastest and smartest way to improve his team.
The future is bright for Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and the Oilers would be wise to maximize their championship hopes by dealing the quickly depreciating Yakupov. If they don’t act soon they risk having a bust akin to Alexander Daigle or Patrik Stefan on their hands.