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It’s early, but the Avalanche’s gamble on Nail Yakupov is paying off

The Colorado Avalanche took a shot on Nail Yakupov when few else would, and the low-risk, one-year contract is starting to look like it could come with high reward.

When the Avalanche signed Nail Yakupov in the off-season, it felt like a reclamation project.

Here was Yakupov, 24 years old and only five years removed from being taken with the draft’s first pick, on the open market after not receiving a qualifying offer from the St. Louis Blues. He was coming off of a season in which he managed three goals and nine points in 40 games. And it would be fair to say he hadn’t lived up to the considerable hype that comes with the first overall selection.

Blame it on what you will, but Yakupov had his troubles. In Edmonton, he was part of disappointing Oilers team after disappointing Oilers team and was never able to recapture the excitement he brought in his 17-goal, 31-point lockout-shortened rookie campaign. He was saddled with bottom-six minutes and ended up out of town before his fifth season. In St. Louis, it was much of the same with the added difficulty of cracking a tough Blues lineup.

Despite all that, what Colorado saw was a young player who needed another chance, and the Avalanche were in the perfect position to give him the opportunity. A lineup in need of a boost in whatever way it could get it? Check. The chance to add a player with untapped upside on a roster that had few of that ilk? Check. And, really, it wasn’t going to take a huge commitment from the Avalanche to get him. On a one-year deal paying $875,000, Yakupov is the team’s lowest-paid forward and would've been as easy cut if he couldn’t make the club out of training camp. It made him the perfect low-risk signing and one with the potential of a high reward.

And, wouldn’t you know it, the chance Colorado has taken on Yakupov looks to be paying off in the early going. In the pre-season, Yakupov showed he could produce if given the chance, with a goal and four points in three games. But putting up points during the exhibition schedule is one thing. Managing to do the same once the games actually matter is another. 

However, Yakupov has been more than equal to the task. In his Avalanche debut, Yakupov found the scoresheet with a helper. Against the Boston Bruins in Game No. 3, Yakupov wired two pucks past Tuukka Rask. Two nights later, he added to his total with a goal and assist against the Bruins. And though it’s still early, one can’t help but marvel at the fact that in four games Yakupov has done what it took him 40 games to accomplish in St. Louis: score three times, while his five points are more than half of what he registered last season as a Blue.

There’s some luck involved in that, of course. He’s not going to continue to get credited with goals after an empty net is shoved off its moorings and rarely will he be in a 1-on-1 footrace with a netminder resulting in an empty-netter. But watch Yakupov’s third goal of the 2017-18 season — a steal leading to a 2-on-1 in which he opens up for a one-timer. That’s the type of play he’s more than capable of making on a nightly basis, as is his assist that led to Matt Duchene’s brilliant goal.

The biggest concern surrounding Yakupov’s continued production is that eventually — and likely sooner rather than later — his shooting percentage is going to dive. He’s firing at 27.3 percent through four games. As a career 9.9-percent shooter, chances are that bloated success rate is trimmed in half at some point. But there’s a good argument it won’t result in Yakupov’s scoring falling off altogether. 

Reason being is that Yakupov has managed to fire 11 shots, the second-most shots of any Avs forward. Only Mikko Rantanen, who has 13, ranks ahead of him. If Yakupov continues at this pace, he’ll rifle somewhere in the range of 225 shots on goal across the campaign. Even if he dips down to his career average shooting percentage, he would slot home 20-plus goals. If he lands somewhere between his current rate and his career average, there’s a chance he hits 30 on the season.

Far-fetched as that may seem for a player who has been synonymous with the bust tag in recent years, Yakupov does have that potential. He’s a pure point-producer, always has been, and further production should open up more opportunity for him. And though his ice time hasn’t risen all that much thus far — he’s averaging 12:25 through four games, the second-least of all Avalanche forwards but two more minutes per night than he saw with the Blues — he’s getting something he wasn’t in St. Louis: a chance on the power play. Through four games, he’s seventh among forwards in ice time with the man advantage and he’s proven himself to be a consistent power play contributor throughout his career. He’s yet to strike with the man advantage, but skating alongside Duchene and Alexander Kerfoot on the second unit, chances are the power play drought doesn’t last long. Once that starts clicking, he could really bolster his point total.

Let’s not sleep on the other things Yakupov has been doing well, either. Small sample size and all that, but Yakupov leads the Avalanche with a 61.3 percent Corsi For percentage and it’s not as though he’s getting fluffy zone starts. In fact, a greater percentage of his shifts are coming in the neutral and defensive zones, impressive given he’s yet to be on the ice for an even-strength goal against. It’s not as if he’s facing lightweights in terms of competition, either, and his line with Duchene and Kerfoot has been almost inarguably the Avalanche’s best unit through four games.

There’s still a lot of season to be played and a lot of time for Yakupov to revert to his old self. That’s why few would go ahead and call this the signing of the summer just yet. But through the four games he has played, Yakupov has shown some signs of promise, a few glimmers of hope, and maybe, just maybe, he’s finally found a fit and a place where he can really get his career on track.

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