Nail Yakupov is getting another chance, and if he’s finally going to prove he can live up to the hype that once surrounded him, it’s going to be as a member of the Colorado Avalanche.
After speculation about what the future would hold for Yakupov, the 2012 first-overall selection found himself a new home Tuesday when the Avalanche announced the they had signed the 23-year-old to a one-year deal, which is worth $875,000, according to CapFriendly. The one-year pact comes after Yakupov spent the past season with the St. Louis Blues and two years after the Edmonton Oilers, who made him the top draft choice, decided to move on from the Russian winger.
But the contract with the Avalanche might be the best shot Yakupov has had yet to find his game.
One of the biggest issues for Yakupov to this point in his career is that he’s had an incredibly difficult time getting anything resembling regular minutes, and in order to be successful, Yakupov likely needs the opportunity to play a regular shift, skate with some likeminded skill players and get consistent chances to produce. In Colorado, he’ll get that in one way or another. The Avalanche don’t have a deep stable of skill forwards and, quite frankly, if there’s any roster in the NHL Yakupov can crack on a regular basis while coming off of a trio of mediocre campaigns, it’s Colorado’s.
While there’s no way to accurately project the Avalanche’s lines for the coming season, especially with Matt Duchene’s will-he-or-won’t-he trade situation, a quick look up and down the roster sees potential for Yakupov to take consistent third-line minutes. Are those prime minutes? Maybe not, but it’s far better than the roughly 11 minutes per game Yakupov averaged in St. Louis this past season, and the offensive weaponry, or lack thereof, that Colorado boasts promises to give Yakupov a shot at regular power play minutes. That could be exactly the thing that sparks his offense, too.
In 2016-17 with the Blues, Yakupov was rarely given a look with the extra man, averaging 16 seconds per game during his 40-game stint in St. Louis, and it’s not as if he was a top power play option in Edmonton during his final three seasons with the Oilers, either. His average ice time on the man advantage was far greater in Edmonton — 1:57 per game — but he was never more than the 10th-most utilized power play skater on the Oilers’ roster. The Avalanche, though, could benefit from trotting out Yakupov on their top power play unit.
Not only could the Avalanche power play use a boost, as it ranked 30th in the league at a mere 12.6 percent, but Yakupov has somewhat of a knack for producing with the extra man. Of the 33 goals he scored in those three final years in Edmonton, 10 came on the power play. Of his 47 assists, Yakupov picked up a dozen while the Oilers were up a skater. Yakupov’s numbers are akin to the top guys in Colorado, too. His 1.34 goals per 60 mark on the power play ranks ahead of Duchene (1.33) and only slightly behind that of MacKinnon (1.59) and Landeskog (1.68). Yakupov’s 3.14 points per 60 is less than only Duchene (3.53), Landeskog (3.59) and MacKinnon (4.12). And when it comes to shot generation, Yakupov’s 12.3 shots per 60 minutes on the power play are more than any other Avalanche player put on goal across the past four seasons.
The concern with Yakupov, of course, is that he can’t simply be sheltered and play all his minutes on the power play, and eventually coach Jared Bednar is going to have to throw the winger over the boards to play at even strength. Defensively, that’s worrying, as Yakupov’s play in his own zone has always been a concern. But that’s where pairing Yakupov with a defensively responsible center, say Carl Soderberg, could pay off. Give Yakupov defensive support and let him loose. Maybe it turns into the best decision Bednar has made behind the Colorado bench.
It’s worth it for the Avalanche to take some risks with Yakupov, too. Beyond a few games here and there, there’s nothing for the Avalanche to lose because it’s not as if things can get much worse than they were this past season. And at $875,000 on a one-year deal, there’s nothing tying Colorado to Yakupov long term and no reason to keep him in the lineup if his play isn’t up to snuff. This is to say Avalanche can shuffle Yakupov up and down the lineup and, if he can find his game and finally catch on, it could turn into the most savvy move Joe Sakic has made in his entire tenure as GM in Colorado. If it fails? Well, make like the Blues, go separate ways with Yakupov and chalk it up to an experiment that didn’t quite pan out.
Even if it only took Yakupov four days to find himself a new home, the truth is that his chances are running out. Flopping in Edmonton was one thing and failing to find a fit in St. Louis was another, but Colorado will provide Yakupov with his best, and quite possibly his last, chance to show he has what it takes. Now, it will be up to him to prove he can shake the tag as a first-overall bust.
(All advanced statistics via Puckalytics)
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