Nail Yakupov is the third No. 1 pick in a row made by the Edmonton Oilers to jump immediately into the NHL. After a highly publicized start to his NHL career, scoring a clutch last-minute equalizer against the Los Angeles Kings in the third game of the season (followed by this polarizing celebration), the rookie quieted down.
While his season has gone more or less how we could have expected it to, there is a lot to be excited about.
At times, Yakupov has been the best player on the ice, but there have been many nights the rookie has gone unnoticed, taking on a less prominent role than his predecessors of a similar pedigree have in past years. While players like Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were relied on heavily for offense in their rookie seasons, the Oilers' top six was more crowded than it has been in the past at the beginning of the year.
Yakupov still got his shifts in the top six—probably far fewer than many fans would have liked to see. He also paid his dues on the third and fourth lines, learning from veterans like Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth. And let’s not forget about his long stint centered by the offensive abyss that is Eric Belanger, which certainly did not help his offensive totals on the season.
Yakupov began the season in the KHL while the lockout was being sorted, where he scored a solid 10 goals and 18 points in 22 games. Compare that to fellow Calder candidate Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues: In his fifth season in the Russian league, he scored 33 points in 32 games for St. Petersburg SKA. They were a powerhouse in the KHL, racking up 36 regulation wins—19 more than Yakupov’s team, Neftekhimik. SKA led the league in goals for this season and had 38 more than Neftekhimik.
In the NHL this year, Tarasenko has scored 0.59 points per game, while Yakupov (two years younger) has scored 0.58. Yakupov is getting slightly more time on the power play and has nine points with the man-advantage compared to Tarasenko’s five.
Yakupov’s offensive totals are comparable to Taylor Hall’s in his rookie season. Hall finished with 0.65 points per game but got four more minutes of ice time on average in 2010-2011 than Yakupov is getting this season.
Yakupov’s minutes have been only slightly more sheltered than Hall’s were as a rookie. While the average plus/minus of the competition Hall faced (his quality of competition) was 0.043, Yakupov has faced an average plus/minus of 0.035, both available at www.behindthenet.ca.
Conversely, Yakupov has not gotten as many favorable zone starts. He’s started 50.4 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, while Hall started more (52 percent) in the other team’s end in 2010-2011, also from www.behindthenet.ca. This could be due to the amount Yakupov has played on the third and fourth lines, which undoubtedly get less offensive zone starts than the top two.
Given his limited minutes and movement up and down the Oilers' offensive depth chart, Yakupov’s season has been a success so far. His recent offensive totals (seven points in his last six games) suggest that his numbers will only improve as the season closes out. While Oilers management will have some decisions to make in the near future regarding the situation in the top six, they can be comfortable knowing that their most recent first overall pick is still on track to succeed in the NHL.
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