Nail Yakupov was a healthy scratch more than a few times last season, his name was thrown around the trade rumour mill, and he had a team-worst minus-33 plus/minus rating. It wasn’t exactly the sophomore campaign you’d expect from a No. 1 draft pick after a lights-out rookie year.
But Edmonton Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins wants you to know—yet again—that he likes the kid.
“My relationship with Nail is a great one,” Eakins told Sportsnet The Fan 590’s Greg Brady and Andrew Walker on Monday. “That’s why I kind of chuckle with the way it gets drawn out in the media. You take a kid out of the lineup and suddenly there’s a big fight going on. Well, there’s no fight. Nail understood what was going on.”
The No. 1 overall pick in 2012, the Russian-born 20-year-old enjoyed a shortened rookie campaign that was almost the stuff of Oilers fans’ dreams. In 48 games, Yakupov put up 17 goals—he scored a hat-trick in his final game of the year—and 14 assists. His shooting percentage was a ridiculous 21 per cent.
And that, Eakins says, is part of the problem.
“You look at the top shooters in the game, they don’t shoot like that. It’s hard to sustain," Eakins said. "With him coming out of the gate like that, suddenly the expectation on a very inexperienced player is, well, he’ll just score 30 goals this year.”
Yakupov didn’t even reach the 30-point mark this season, and he was held without a point until his seventh game, when he recorded an assist. His first of 11 goals came three games later.
“Not getting the offence hurt his confidence,” Eakins said.
Yakupov’s defensive struggles saw him benched, even in back-to-back games. When trade rumours flew, Yakupov's agent said his client would be open to a trade, if the Oilers had a problem with him. "So much more was made out of that than what was really going on," Eakins said.
The coach, who's coming off his rookie season in the NHL, points to superstars like Steven Stamkos and Joe Thornton, players who had similar struggles early in their careers.
“There’s an evolution to a player like Nail,” Eakins says. “He’s still learning the game; he’s extremely inexperienced.
“I’m very hopeful and fairly confident that he’s gonna have a great rebound year.”