Oilers winger Nail Yakupov sees offence revived with centre Derek Roy, head coach Todd Nelson
nail yakupov, shown here celebrating his goal in the win over the Boston Bruins Feb. 18 at Rexall Place, has nine points in 13 games under Todd Nelson, after amassing 32 points in the previous 94 games. (Ian Kucerak, Edmonton Sun)
There were times in the last 18 months when Nail Yakupov didn’t even want to come to the rink.
His numbers had dwindled to nothing, his confidence was shot, his game was deteriorating and his relationship with his coach had grown cold enough to store Popsicles in.
A first overall draft choice once considered an untouchable piece of Edmonton’s future, Yakupov felt powerless to stop the negative spiral as his reputation sunk to that of a busted pick, an untradable mistake.
Playing for the Oilers, playing hockey in general, wasn’t fun anymore.
“It was kind of a hard time for me,” said the 21-year-old winger, hanging out in his dressing room stall long after practice, as usual.
“It was my bad, too, to not get the points that I should have, but I worked hard and it’s not that easy to break in. I was pushing 100% every day.
“Some days it was pretty tough, hard for me mentally, but I never gave up.”
Fast forward to today and it’s an entirely different Yakupov on and off the ice. The game is better, the points are coming, the smile is back and suddenly a guy who a lot of people were ready to give up on looks like he might still grow up into something special.
“We all see the promise now that we had when we drafted in him,” said general manager Craig MacTavish. “There have been some ups and downs and sideways play and some head-scratching stuff, but he’s on top of his game now and he shows all the assets we saw when we drafted him. The speed, the physical play, the shot.
“Who knows what unlatches all of that for him, but he’s figured it out.”
Actually, Yakupov says there’s no big secret at all behind his sudden resurrection — just a good centre and coach who believes in him.
When the Oilers replaced Dallas Eakins with Todd Nelson on Dec. 15 and traded for Derek Roy on Dec. 29, they unknowingly acquired a hungry Russian sniper at the same time.
“I feel amazing now,” grinned Yakupov. “I was waiting for a centre for three years. It’s the first time I’ve had a really good centre and I’m really happy for it.
“It took us a couple of games to get used to each other and now we’re pretty comfortable. It’s easy to play with him. He can move the puck and he’s really smart. All I have to do is try to get open for a shot.”
There’s no question Roy has done wonders for the kid’s confidence and development, but Yakupov says Nelson is the biggest reason he’s starting to look like a first overall pick again.
“He’s helped me a lot. I think he’s the guy who helped me the most.”
After finishing his rookie season with 16 points in his last 16 games under Ralph Krueger, Yakpupov was a healthy scratch five games into the Eakins era and it went downhill from there. In 94 games under Eakins, Yakupov managed 32 points.
And now, in his last 13 under Nelson, he has nine, and more importantly, looks like a young colt again, released into the field after being locked up too long in the barn.
“When you don’t have support, and when you’re not feeling any trust from the coach… it’s pretty tough to play the game on the bench,” he said.
“I’m not a bad player, but it’s hard to get your points when you play lower than 10 minutes like I did for one and a half years.
“Now I have support. It’s a different situation, different coach, different guys.
“Nelly trusts the guys, the lines stay the same. We skate with each other, practise with each other and it’s much easier to do the little things in the game because everyone knows where you have go. Things are a lot better than we had in the past.”
Up for a new contract this summer, Yakupov, who used to think about playing somewhere else, now can’t imagine leaving.
“I’m still pretty young and I hope I’m going to be in this league for a long time. I want to play for the Edmonton Oilers. I want to work hard, especially for the guys who trust me and gave me support — MacT and Nelly — and we have a good group of players on the team.”
MacTavish is also excited about what a reborn Yakupov can ultimately become.
“We’ve gone this far,” he said. “We all have to see the end now.”
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