McDavid & Yakupov: The New Dynamic Duo?
In the six games Edmonton have played this season there has been plenty of room for hyperbole, celebration of bizarro statistics (they became the first franchise to have four separate 1st overall picks score in the same game) and general excitement over the teams future.
Connor McDavid’s arrival in Alberta was always going to generate its share of headlines through the opening weeks of the new campaign – first home game, first goal, first point and so on – and thus far things have stayed true to expectation. The Oilers look better for the summer changes they’ve made, but are still a work in progress, while McDavid, perhaps not unsurprisingly, has been their best player.
Having started the season 0-4-0, the Oilers found their feet against a struggling Flames side on Saturday, before beating Vancouver in overtime 24 hours later. Edmonton were on the board and McDavid had his first multi-point game. Celebrations all round.
And while the 18-year old has garnered much of the press so far this season, it is his burgeoning partnership with Nail Yakupov which might bare the greatest fruit for the organisation in the coming years.
Ok, it’s early days. We’re six games in to the new season, Edmonton only has two wins with McDavid registering 3 goals and 2 assists to Yakupov’s 2 goals and 2 assists. But the freedom with which the Russian appears to be playing early this year is in stark contrast to the crumbling figure we saw during his second and third seasons in the NHL.
The former Sarnia Sting winger went from an impressive 17 goals and 31 points in the lockout shortened 2012/13 season to just 11 goals the following year (63 games played, 24 points) and then 14 goals in 81 appearances last term.
There was even talk of trading Yakupov, who was selected first overall by the Oilers in 2012, before he signed a two-year, $5m contract extension in April.
But on a team boasting Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Leon Draisaitl, Yakupov increasingly seemed like the odd man out – contract or not. The ‘expendable one’ when the club came to balancing its books and ensuring it’s plethora of talent was retained whilst also staying under the cap.
Perhaps then Eberle’s preseason injury will prove to be a blessing in disguise for both Yakupov and the Oilers. Where Eberle might have partnered McDavid, the opportunity fell to the Nizhnekamsk native instead. And (very) early signs are promising.
Yakupov’s nose for the net doesn’t ever seem to have been in doubt; it was his defensive game that left much to be desired, with his combined -68 over the past two seasons frequently used as a stick with which to beat him.
It is understandable Edmonton wanted Yakupov to be a more rounded player – there is less room for passengers in one’s own end these days – but the snipers strengths were also dulled as a result of these attempts to make him better in his own end. A spiral of decline ensued, clashes with coaches were mentioned and trade rumours swirled.
Perhaps unrealistic expectations were put upon Yakupov from the get go. He was the 1st overall pick who didn’t score 30 goals in his rookie year, like countrymen Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk did (well ok, Kovalchuk scored 29, but that was in 65 games, so…) – the shortened schedule often forgotten.
Did fans expect him to be something different? Less of a pure goal scorer, more of a two way forward? Or did folk simply pin too much on him? Hoping he’d be the piece of the puzzle to bring about a revival in Edmonton’s fortunes. Whatever the expectation, things went sour alarmingly quickly.
Yakupov may not quite be in the same class of sniper as Ovechkin and Kovalchuk; but by making his debut during the truncated 2012/13 campaign he missed out on the opportunity to register that hefty rookie return that so often buys a young player time. The 17 goals he did register suggest he might have been capable of cracking that magical 30 goal barrier had he seen a full 82 games action.
Perhaps the closest comparison to Yakupov, no one doubted Kovalchuk’s offensive abilities after his first NHL season, despite being somewhat slack in his own zone during his early career (something he significantly improved on in later years). By contrast, Yakupov never seemed to be given the same room to grow as a player.
But Yakupov may finally have something Kovalchuk had, and significantly benefited from, in Atlanta – an elite line mate with whom he shares genuine chemistry.
Kovalchuk had Heatley, Yakupov now has McDavid.
Some will say that Yakupov has already failed to form a partnerships with top players, with Hall, Eberle et al – but sometimes players just do not fit. Even the most skilful ones. There’s limited acceptance of this around the NHL, even though we’ve seen a prime example of it in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins struggled to find wingers Sidney Crosby ‘clicked’ with.
With Detroit rolling in to Edmonton tonight, the Oilers will be hoping this new partnership continues to flourish, after the pair linked up on three of the Oilers seven goals during their past two outings.
McDavid snapped a 1-1 tie late in the second period against Calgary, following Yakupov’s neat outlet pass, with McDavid registering the second assist on Yakupov’s first goal of the season three minutes in to the final frame.
Yakupov struck again the following night, opening the scoring against Vancouver after McDavid had split the Canucks defence before finding the 22-year old free in the slot.
Again, this is the smallest of sample sizes. Only time will truly tell if the pairing can last. But Yakupov’s ability to find an opening and McDavid’s ability to find his stick certainly seems to point toward a mutually beneficial relationship, especially if Todd McLellan continues to insert Benoit Pouliot on the left wing to act as a sort of defensive conscience.
McLellan has been careful where and when he uses both McDavid and Yakupov. Also employed on the Oilers’ second powerplay unit with Pouliot, Mark Letestu and Andrej Sekera; two thirds of the pair’s starts have come in the offensive zone, with McDavid logging just under 18 minutes of ice time per night on average, while Yakupov’s ‘ATOI’ currently sits at 15 minutes and 26 seconds.
The fresh start may have resurrected Yakupov’s career anyway, with a new General Manager and Head Coach installed this summer. But sensible usage and the opportunity to play with one of the games brightest young stars have provided a real chance for the young Russian to live up to the hype that built up around him three years ago.
And if he can form a lasting chemistry with McDavid, it won’t just benefit Yakupov, but the Oilers as well.
A generational talent is one thing. But such partnerships are rare, and they tend to power entire teams toward success – Kane and Toews, Getzlaf and Perry, Lemieux and Jagr. Pronger and Niedermayer even.
Patience still needs to be applied, allowances for mistakes must be made – it’s still a young team after all – and lean streaks need to be ridden out, not used as a reason to drag a man back down again.
But if, IF, this is truly the start of something special in Alberta, then the Oilers might truly be a force in the NHL again.