Nail Yakupov? It’s far too early to hammer on him

Adam Proteau
Getty Images

When right winger Nail Yakupov was made a healthy scratch by Edmonton coach Dallas Eakins for two consecutive games in October, you could predict what was coming next: rumors the team would consider trading the Russian phenom they made the first overall pick in 2012.

What a colossal and breathtaking mistake that would be. Sending Yakupov out of town because of Edmonton’s dismal start to the season and previous failures of management would be the worst thing GM Craig MacTavish could do.

Nobody is claiming Yakupov is a complete player right now. He is also 20.

Did you or anyone you know have it all figured out during their first two decades on this planet? I didn’t. I thought the Rolling Stones and The Who were retired for good as of 1982. I thought life could taste great and be less filling. I was young. I was dumb. I was wrong.

With few exceptions – Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews come to mind – most prospects have to make significant adjustments to succeed at the NHL level. Yakupov is proving to be no different. He is a one-dimensional talent – and although that dimension is spectacular, a responsible coach like Eakins is only doing his job by attempting to motivate his player to improve. The first-year Oilers bench boss did the same thing with Leafs center Nazem Kadri when both were in the American League. And Kadri became a better player because of it.

Eakins has barely had two months to work with Yakupov and people want him traded? Why, so other teams can reap the benefits if he does smarten up? This is the microwave mentality of the modern day, the shrinking attention span of society-at-large. An athlete barely joins a team before fans and media are ready to chew them up and spit them out.

But before you set your jaw in motion this time, compare Yakupov’s start to his NHL career with that of Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos. You’ll discover some striking similarities. In his first 52 games, Yakupov amassed 17 goals and 31 points and was a minus-seven; in his first 52 games, Stamkos recorded seven goals, 22 points and a minus-seven. That’s not a guarantee Yakupov will evolve into the true franchise player Stamkos is, but it is an indication of the talent package we’re talking about.

You’re going to give up on that unrealized potential because of a bad stretch and the background boogeyman (otherwise known as the Kontinental League) that might be an option for Yakupov? Come on. This young man said time and again prior to the draft he wanted to play in the NHL. Is it all his fault he’s playing on a team that stumbled out of the gate and has received subpar goaltending?

The Oilers may come to a crossroads with their core of young, elite talent and at least one of Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle will have to be dealt to address blueline deficiencies. But it shouldn’t be Yakupov because of his heritage or his immaturity. It’s Edmonton’s challenge to bridle that pony. The best teams in the league are the best because they develop talent, not because they scratch their heads and hit the garbage dispenser button a year into a prospect’s pro career.

Should the Hawks have thrown in the towel on Patrick Kane when he was having maturity issues? To ask that question after Kane has won two Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy is to answer it. Any franchise that knee-jerks a talented-but-uneven young player out of town is showing more organizational immaturity than the young player himself.

Trade Yakupov? Maybe one day many years from now. But not now.

This feature originally appeared in the November 4 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.