Prior to Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nail Yakupov had been a healthy scratch for two consecutive contests. Naturally, with the Oilers struggling, the idea that the team might cash in on his future value for help in the here and now has been a popular one among both prominent columnists and the anonymous folk who make their living spreading trade gossip.
To be fair to both classes, the notion of the Oilers trading Yakupov is not entirely ridiculous. The trouble is that most of the proposed returns make little sense. What is Yakupov worth in a trade?
To answer that, it is important to place Yakupov’s performance in historical context. His NHL career is 53 games long; here is how his results in that span compare to the last 10 forwards taken first overall:
With the exception of Alexander Ovechkin, who was a year older than the rest of this list in his first NHL season (thank you, 2004-05 NHL lockout), the only guy to surpass the point-per-game mark in his first 53 games is Sidney Crosby. Yakupov’s performance is near the bottom of the list, ahead of Steven Stamkos and Rick Nash and trailing Taylor Hall and John Tavares by a grand total of two assists.
There is no evidence that Yakupov’s start to his NHL career has been particularly bad. If the Oilers decide to trade Yakupov, that’s the upside they will be selling. What would a 20-year-old Stamkos or Nash or Hall or Tavares go for in a trade right now? The cost of one of those players in the second season of his entry-level contract would be massive.
Given the obvious value of players in that range, why would the Oilers even dream of trading Nail Yakupov? The answer is straight forward: team need.
Edmonton has two of the other players on that list above (Hall at left wing, Nugent-Hopkins at centre) and has less need than most teams for another spectacular offensive weapon. They also have a good young player in Jordan Eberle and a competent veteran in Ales Hemsky at right wing. Add strength offensively, strength at right wing and a desperate need for help at other positions together, and it's possible to concoct a plausible trade scenario involving Yakupov (or, for that matter, the pricier but more proven Eberle).
But Yakupov certainly should not be available for a pending free-agent goaltender or a good defensive prospect. Yakupov has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone, the top scoring forward on a contending team. The Oilers do not need to add quantity in a hypothetical trade; the team is loaded to the gills with good defensive prospects. The Oilers need to add quality, and that means the centerpiece of the deal has to be a player who can have a similar impact at another position.
That is a difficult return to land. Clubs with potential franchise goalies and future No. 1 defencemen are rarely willing to trade them away. The Oilers, however, would be foolish to settle for anything less.