The Edmonton Oilers Have To Trade Nail Yakupov

by Kolby Solinsky

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Consider this: everyone’s ripping the Edmonton Oilers for their ineptitude, rightfully so, and adding their draft embarrassment to that pile. Specifically, that the Oil had three straight No. 1 picks and have failed to make the playoffs once in three years since their last one.

But how many of us, if given the No. 1 pick in those three drafts, would have chosen anyone different?

Sure, you could say you would have chosen Ryan Murray over Nail Yakupov. But you probably wouldn’t have, given the responsibility yourself. First off, Murray is a very good young defensive prospect, but he hasn’t set Ohio on fire himself. Secondly, Yakupov was the best player in his draft – almost nobody thought otherwise, except for the guy in that linked story above.

Perhaps Murray, being a d-man, would have been the better choice for the 2012 Oilers, but there’s some wisdom in never passing up on a once-a-year talent like Yakupov.

What if the roster changes significantly in five years, for example, and Edmonton suddenly realizes they were drafting a guy to fit a team that never stayed together?

(Consider as well, with Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Yakupov, there’s a good chance – no matter which team drafts them – that at least one of them will disappoint, maybe even bust. By selecting three ultra-offensive, maybe-future superstars, the Oilers were actually hedging their bets.)

So, I’ll give the Oilers a break there.

But I won’t on anything else, because this franchise has proven to be a colossal ‘fustercluck‘ of an organization, at least when it comes to its on-ice talent and its development.

Connor McDavid should be very, very scared right now. Because there’s a good chance Edmonton will finish last in the NHL or get another first overall pick. And if they do, they’ll no doubt use it on him.

It’s not their fault they’d end up with a fourth first-overall pick since 2010, and it’s not their fault every one of those drafts has had a forward leading the chart.

But if the Oilers get McDavid – and if they’re still trying to balance the Hall-Nuge-Yakupov deal, not to mention with last year’s No. 3 Leon Draisaitl floating in purgatory between the NHL and Kelowna – it will be a disaster for McDavid, at least for his first three seasons.

He’s certainly the talent you think he is. He’s certainly the guy some lucky team will draft – unlike previous busts like Alexandre Daigle or Patrick Stefan, perhaps Yakupov, you can’t question McDavid’s dedication to hockey or to whatever jersey he throws on.

But it will be a shame to see Edmonton’s brass – which is looking a lot more like copper wire right now – screw up the inception of another shooting star.

But how do you fix it? Again, considering it all, what’s happened and what’s to come?

Well, the Oil made the right move sending Leon Draisaitl back to junior. There was no room for him on this Edmonton team, not where every step forward is a shot into the void, a lunge into quicksand.

They’ve got a keeper, for my money, in Nugent-Hopkins. Perhaps he hasn’t kept up with the other No. 1’s before him – like Steven Stamkos or John Tavares – but he’s certainly one of the game’s most unique players, definitely one of its smartest playmakers, a dominant passer who sees the ice as well as any center, young or old, in the NHL.

Taylor Hall’s done nothing wrong in Edmonton. He’s maybe not the all-around player – the captain – Tavares or Stamkos have become. He’s falling to Tyler Seguin, the guy drafted one spot after him who’s now third in the NHL’s goals race.

And they might trade Hall, a situation that could pull in pieces and should be evaluated on its own.

But what about Yakupov? What about that infuriatingly indefinable Russian pistol?

Well, it’s easy. You trade him. Edmonton, you have to trade him. (And I’m sorry I’ve taken this long to get to the thesis I drew in the headline.)

The talent Yakupov came into the league with, it’s still there. But he’s a precious package, like all offensive once-in-a-while-ers are. He’s in his third season now, and he’s done nothing but float up-and-down a sub-500 roster. He scored a little at first and has become a cautionary tale since.

But it doesn’t have to stay like that. Because Yakupov’s still got the shot, the stickhandling, and the speed the Oilers drafted him for. He’ll just never get it done in Edmonton. And that’s hard for the team to admit, because why would you just give away a guy you think could become a 40-goal scorer some day? Why give him away, admit defeat like that?

Perhaps there’s no easy answer there, at least not one that will suit the Oilers. It’s just what they have to do, for themselves and for him.

On The Hockey Writers blog, Carl Maloney asks whether it’s too soon to consider Nail Yakupov a bust?

Well, no. It’s not too soon to consider it. Because if he stays in Edmonton, that’s exactly what the Oilers will turn him into.

Compare him to another high-profile draft pick, in this case a guy who turned into a Hall of Famer, Chris Pronger.

Pronger was heading nowhere fast with the Hartford Whalers, a second-overall pick selected in the 1993 Entry Draft who was blacklisted, to some extent, for his off-ice issues. (That included a bar fight and a drunk driving incident.) He may have just been a defenceman, but Pronger’s 10 goals through his first two seasons were no doubt a drop in the pond in an NHL era where Art Ross winners routinely topped 100 points. (Eight players had 100 points in Pronger’s rookie year, 1993-94.)

Here’s the blueliner’s Whalers teammate Kelly Chase in 1994, and you could easily ad-lib Pronger’s name for Yakupov:

“You could see (Pronger) had talent, but it was a ho-hum thing. He really didn’t have any direction. He was under a lot of pressure and just wasn’t ready for the responsibility. Of course that team wasn’t exactly overloaded with players who knew how to win.”

It’s all the same, really. And while some might say the Whalers made a mistake on Pronger – dealing a guy like that before he hit his stride – I’d say the opposite. The Whalers made the decision to move on from a guy who needed a new start, somewhere else. And sports history is littered with stories like that, of all-stars who were stuck in a rut, buried down the rat hole somewhere before they broke through.

Brett Favre had it with the Falcons. (“I had to get him out of Atlanta,” said ex-Falcons coach Jerry Glanville. “I could not sober him up.”) Maybe Johnny Manziel has it in Cleveland.

Nail Yakupov certainly has it in Edmonton. Not for the same reasons as Favre, Manziel, or Pronger, mind you, but he’s also a high-profile draft pick who’s not improving.

And of course, a lot of this is on him. He hasn’t played well enough – he hasn’t earned more ice time. He was drafted because he could score, and he’s not.

But it’s also a no-win situation for Edmonton. They have to gather their chips and fold. Or else, they’ll end up drafting Connor McDavid – or Jack Eichel – and they’ll just split the dysfunctional atom another way.