Enigma. sqare peg, round hole. Doesn’t play 200 feet.
Those are a lot of different ways that scouts, fans, press, and even the peanut vendors (a tribute to the greatest hockey movie ever, Slap Shot) describe 21 year-old, Russian-born, former #1 overall pick Nail Yakupov. If you didn’t know any better, you would think his first 2+ years in the NHL had been an unmitigated disaster.
And from a fantasy perspective? Forget it! If you’re in a standard, one year league, this could very well be true. Keeper league? Read on, and I’ll tell you why you shouldn’t bail on Nail.
Yakupov burst onto the scene during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 NHL season, recording 31 points in 48 games. He played to a respectable -4 while scoring 6 power play goals and boasting a solid 21% shooting percentage. It seemed like the youngster was primed to take the next step this season as top-line minutes and increased power play time looked inevitable.
He even made some headlines with his game-tying goal celebrations:
Ten power play points and 2:28 on the man advantage per game; Nail was thriving under first-year coach Ralph Krueger. Keeper league owners were licking their chops for what was to come. so naturally, Edmonton GM-extraordinaire Craig MacTavish famously fired Krueger over Skype, hired Dallas Eakins as the head coach, and the rest has been a disaster. Eakins demanded 200 foot play, heavy defensive responsibilities, sound hockey without the puck and a reduction in risky play. Those things are not in a Russian-born player’s hockey vocabulary.
The results were abysmal: 61 games, 24 points, a minus 33, less than 2:00 minutes per game on the power play and a complete and utter lack of confidence on Yakupov’s part. Nail’s confidence was so much in the gutter that his agent made a trip to Edmonton mid-season to talk with management and try to lobby for a trade to give new life to his client. No dice. Yakupov remained on many, many fantasy hockey waiver wires.
During the offseason, Yakupov spent the majority of his summer in Edmonton, gaining strength and dedicating himself to improving his all-around game. New season, new hopes and a strange status for a former #1 pick: fantasy sleeper. Yakupov was drafted on average in the 14th round in Yahoo! leagues and was projected somewhere in the 50-point range. Thus far, Yakupov is off to a slow start for the Oilers. But trust me, if you watch the Oilers play (something I have painstakingly done probably more than I should this season), good things are on the horizon. He skates hard (with and without the puck), back-checks, plays physical, and after taking only 16 shots in his first 10 games, is averaging almost 4 per game over his last 5. The biggest problem right now is the uniform he wears.
Like I said, square peg, round hole.
Yakupov has done everything that’s been asked of him yet something just isn’t right. 15 games played: 2 goals, 4 assists and just 1 measly power play assist. Not good.
He’s currently available in 60% of Y! leagues. There have been plenty of trade rumors surrounding the youngster, and at some point a change of scenery may be necessary. In most keeper leagues there are 2-3 “extra” roster spots (sometimes called a taxi squad), where owners can stash young players that don’t necessarily warrant a nightly start right now, but are just too tempting to release for fear that a switch will go on at any point. This is Yakupov. Stash him on your keeper team for now and await a big trade, which seems a formality in Edmonton. A change in venue, line-mates and coaches will certainly benefit Yakupov. This may make you, the prudent fantasy hockey owner glad that you didn’t bail on Nail.
Statistical credits: NHL.com
Photo cred: EdmontonSun.com
Derek Gibson is The Sports Script’s resident fantasy hockey guru. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @Extra_Attacker!