Ghosts Of Oilers Past: Nail Yakupov

Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

After former Oilers defenseman, Sheldon Souray spilled beans on John Scott’s Dropping The Gloves podcast, inspiring an article of mine you can read here, another ex-Oiler appeared in an episode and gave his two cents on what went wrong during his time in Edmonton.

Related Article: Ghosts Of Oilers Past: Sheldon Souray

Nail Yakupov was the consensus number one prospect in the summer of 2012 and was viewed as the next scoring phenom from Russia. Before his NHL Draft, he played two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with the Sarnia Sting. In the first season, he scored 49 goals, surpassing a franchise rookie record initially held by Steven Stamkos with 42 goals in 2007. Obviously, Stamkos has had the better NHL career by three country miles. But in retrospect, at the time, that was still an impressive feat for any hockey player, regardless of what league it was done in. Yakupov finished his OHL career with 170 points in 107 games played. The Oilers organization found itself in an odd circumstance. This was the third year in a row that they were selecting first overall, tying a record set by the Quebec Nordiques two decades earlier before they moved to Colorado. That team used their picks on Mats Sundin(1989), Owen Nolan(1990), and Eric Lindros(1991, but he didn’t want to play there and was traded afterward). There was talk that Oilers management was set on selecting defenseman Ryan Murray from the Everett Silvertips. Still, team owner Daryl Katz vetoed that perspective and forced them to take Yakupov instead. I also wrote an article about Murray around this time last year. You can find it with this link – During the TSN broadcast of the NHL Draft, insider Bob McKenzie stated that former NHL player and Yakupov’s agent, Igor Larionov, compared him to Valeri Kharlamov, who Canadians old enough may remember from the 1972 Summit Series against Canada.

Related Article: Ghosts Of Oilers Past: Tyler Benson

The 2012-2013 lockout-shortened season was Yakupov’s rookie year. He tied Jonathan Huberdeau for first among rookies in points with 31 and finished first among rookies in goals with 17. The most memorable of those goals being scored in Edmonton’s third game of the season. That would be his infamous game-tying goal against the Kings with less than five seconds left in the third period, capping it off with a Theo Flurry-esque celebration. Was it over the top? Yes. Was it within the moment? I still thought so. For context, the Oilers had a late tying goal disallowed, which some fans will argue should’ve counted, throwing beverages onto the ice in frustration. And fewer games were played that season, so getting early points in the standings became more important than in previous years. Unfortunately, it’s the only highlight of his that people will remember.

His second season was the start of the Dallas Eakins era in Edmonton, and his NHL career would start heading downward from there. He was getting very little ice time for the type of player he was supposed to be, ending the 2013-2014 season with just 24 points in 63 games played. His third season was a slight upgrade in points, but it came after a coaching change ten days before Christmas of 2014, and Eakins was replaced with Todd Nelson. In an already lost season, Yakupov gained some of his confidence back and had pretty solid offensive chemistry with veteran forward Derek Roy, who the Oilers got in a trade from the Predators. It also wound up being Roy’s last of 11 NHL seasons.

The start of the 2015-2016 season looked like a rejuvenation for Yakupov. Connor McDavid was playing in his rookie year and had Nail as one of his linemates. They both had a point in every game up until the 13th game of the season. But in the 13th game, against Philadelphia, McDavid collided with the boards after getting tangled up by a couple of Flyers players, putting him out for three months with a broken collarbone. The Oilers went back to having no Yak Attack in them, as he went back to struggling on offense. In the offseason, he was traded to St. Louis. The change of scenery didn’t help, as the Blues often made him a healthy scratch in the 2016-2017 season, and he struggled just as much to get more ice time as he did in Edmonton. He then signed a one year deal with the Avalanche, and the 2017-2018 season started well for him the same way the 2015-2016 season did. He was developing good early chemistry with Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon. There’d been speculation of Duchene getting traded before that season started. When he finally was in the second month of the season, Yakupov returned to being the version of himself that looked more like a bottom six forward. That was his last year in the NHL. He’s been back in Russia playing in the Kontinental Hockey League ever since. This past year, he won the Gagarin Cup(the KHL equivalent of the Stanley Cup) with Avangard Omsk.

Now, about that podcast episode. John Scott mentioned two interviews regarding Yakupov that stayed in people’s minds. The first was Brian Burke on Spittin’ Chicklets, another podcast with another former Oiler, Ryan Whitney. Burke stated that when he was still the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Yakupov gave the worst prospect interview he’d ever conducted. He believed Nail acted too pompous and disinterested, saying that Yak thought the interview was a waste of time for a team selecting 5th overall at the time. The second was between former Oilers goalie Devan Dubnyk and Oilers analyst Jason Gregor. Dubnyk said, and I quote…

“Oh, Nail Yakupov. This guy was an idiot. A complete idiot. I tried to explain to him. We were doing a low-drive from the corner and he’s zipping these things past my ear because he’s trying to hit the elbow. And I tried to explain to him: ‘You realize there’s three outcomes here. You miss the net, you score, or you hit me in the ear. I hate all three of those. If you want to practice this shot, go do it on the other end.”

Yakupov said in the podcast he had no recollection of those moments or what was said to him in those moments. He also pointed out how he was still learning how to be more fluent in English, so maybe the language barrier got in the way when he had those confrontations, and he just didn’t understand. The only other person he could speak to in Russian was Alex Galchenyuk, his Sarnia teammate who was drafted 3rd overall by the Canadiens that same summer. He was criticized quite often for his lack of two-way play. So much so that he once snapped at a reporter, asking that they stop talking to him about defense. According to Nail, Dallas Eakins often shouted at him in the locker room and wasn’t really helping him learn.

There was also the subject of veteran leadership, or lack thereof, in Edmonton. He said that because some of the best players on the team were still very young, there wasn’t enough experience to overcome bad games or shifts in those lost seasons. While they did have Andrew Ference sign as a free agent and then be made team captain, along with other veterans they acquired, it’s not just the number of years. The pedigree and the resume make a difference, too. The veterans that the Oilers did have, such as Ference, Mark Fayne, Benoit Pouliot, and Teddy Purcell, were either past their prime or weren’t key contributors to the success of their former teams. This is still an interesting take from him and not totally farfetched. He did, however, state that his favorite veteran was enforcer Darcy Hordichuk. He made Nail feel the most at home.

My perspective on drafting this player hasn’t changed from 13 years ago. The summer of 2012 was a year for the Oilers to address their defense. I understand that any defenseman drafted would not have been ready to make an immediate impact for a couple more years. Contrary to the narrative, they had lots of younger defensemen. What I’d have liked to see them do was offer the #1 pick in a trade for a more established defenseman who could play top 4 minutes. Which teams would accept such an offer is beyond my knowledge. But if Yakupov came with enough hype, then entertaining a trade would’ve at least been worth a try. It’s nothing personal; it’s just that another offense first/offense only forward wasn’t what they needed.

Even if Yakupov was utilized the way he should’ve been, you still couldn’t imagine Edmonton being a playoff team because there would’ve still been too many roster holes that he wouldn’t have fixed. He would have recorded more points, scored more goals, remained an NHL player, and the Oilers would’ve finished higher in the standings. But that also means we wouldn’t watch Leon Draisaitl or Connor McDavid on a nightly basis. Sometimes, you take the good with the bad. But as I wrote last year, I’ve still always liked him as a person. He’s a really happy guy and seems like he’d be great to hang around. The time he bought a homeless man dinner in Edmonton will always be heartwarming. Getting drafted by another team may have served him better; he may have been handled the right way. It’s a real shame that the National Hockey League was a failure for Nail.

Stephen Vani

Oilers fan in Toronto. Staying up past my bedtime for Western games since the mid 2000s.

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