First Overall Pick Nail Yakupov Still Trying to Get it Right

Nail Yakupov
PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 04: Nail Yakupov #64 of the Colorado Avalanche celebrates his goal at 5:37 of the third period against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center on November 4, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Avalanche defeated the Flyers 5-4 in the shootout. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Nail Yakupov was selected first overall (1st Round), by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He has played in the National Hockey League for six seasons, but you may not have heard much lately about the 24-year-old from Nizhnekamsk, Russia.

Yakupov was a teenager when he moved from Russia to pursue a career-playing hockey in North America. He was drafted by the Sarnia Sting in 2012, and played on the major junior team in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Yakupov played 65 games in his first season, registering 49 goals and 52 assists. His second season in Sarnia resulted in 42 games played, 31 goals and 38 assists (Plus an additional five points in the OHL playoffs). With strong OHL stats like this, it is understandable that Yakupov was drafted so high. However, many questioned if the young Russians skill-set would transfer to the NHL and if he could handle the cultural shock. Yakupov was only 5’11 and under 180 lbs when he described the OHL to Dave Borody, “It’s very different hockey to what I played last year. It’s faster, the players are stronger and more physical.”

The Nail Yakupov Journey

When the Edmonton Oiler drafted Yakupov they had already used high draft picks to build a team with Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The 2012-2013 season resulted in 29 wins and lost 44 games (Lost 9 in OT ). Yakupov was supposed to fix the Oilers or at least compliment the already star-studded young talent. In his first season, a lockout-shortened campaign of just 48 games, Yakupov scored 17 times and added 14 assists. It was a strong rookie season, and it appeared that Yakupov was well on his way to justifying his lofty draft position.

The next year the Oilers again tumbled down the standings and Yakupov found the back of the net only 11 times, adding another 13 assists in 63 games. The Edmonton Journal realized that the Oilers deserved some of the blame, but reports from insiders spoke of poor practice habits from the young Russian.

Yakupov’s performance dropped off even further by the time he was traded from Edmonton to the St. Louis Blues for the 2016-2017 season where he scored just three goals in 40 games. This season with the Avalanche, Yakupov is set to play most of the season, but has just nine goals and seven assists for 16 points in 49 games on the season.

Searching for the Elusive Comfort Zone

It’s never worked out in the NHL for Nail Yakupov. He’s only 24 years old with so much potential, but still no “perfect fit”. It happened with the Oilers for 4 seasons, followed by a season with the Blues and now the Avalanche for the 2017-2018 season. Yakupov’s minutes per game have fluctuated with his performance. As his statistical performance has decreased, his minutes played per game also decreased. Unfortunately, these two things work against each other and Yakupov has struggled to cement his place as a top-line winger.

Coaches have to ensure all four lines are doing their jobs and sometimes players have their minutes limited or even scratched in order to allow for a better performing player in the organization to play. Yakupov has failed to show his worth, but how do you improve your performance with limited minutes? Yakupov hasn’t figured it out yet, and time is running out. He’s already been given up on by two organizations and took a very cheap deal to play for Colorado.  The young Russian may be allowing his chance in the big leagues to slip through his fingers.

When you break it down, Nail Yaupov is a good player with speed and a shot that made him over a point-per-game player in the OHL with the Sarnia Sting and that allowed him to be drafted as high as he was, and saw him excel as an NHL rookie. However, his scouting report clearly was unable to foresee his future performance in the NHL, thus far.

Yakupov is only on a one-year deal with the Avalanche, paying just $875,000 this season. He will be a restricted free agent in July. It remains to be seen if the Avalanche will make a qualifying offer to retain his rights or allow him to walk. Improving his numbers down the stretch is a must, or he could be cast aside, just another first-round bust.


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