EDMONTON – First one on, last one off. You’ve all heard that before.
It’s fascinating theatre watching a National Hockey League practice most days. It’s not that the action is especially overwhelming – it usually isn’t – but there’s value, an indefinable curiosity in being privy to that all-access environment.
There is always something to see.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned watching Nail Yakupov skate over the past year, it’s that relentless work ethic – a stoic, easily discernible quality on full display at all times. Few work harder and are more accountable than he is. Almost every day, practice ends with a voluntary bag skate. After a game, the stairs are most common.
"That’s what they should all be doing," Oilers coach Dallas Eakins said. "Nail works extremely hard."
"I love it," Yakupov added. "This is the NHL, the best league in the world. I’ve got to work as hard as I possibly can to become a better player, every single day. If it takes a little sweat, so what?"
Playing his best hockey in quite some time, Yakupov, skating on the top line with Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, has points in three straight and a total of six in his last seven games.
"The games he played going into the break were easily his best of the season," Eakins said. "He's playing very responsibly, he's supporting his linemates, he's coming to the puck, he's getting to the right spots in the defensive zone, and his passion to get the puck back is as high as when he has it to begin with.
"We want that to continue."
Yakupov’s play helped the Oilers tack together a 5-1-1 record leading into the Olympic break.
"It’s great and I’m really proud of it, but it’s in the past," Yakupov said. "I’ve got to forget about it, move on and make sure I’m even better for the next game. I’ve worked really hard to get to this point and I want to make sure I’m doing my part to succeed, for my coaches, my teammates and the fans.
"Things are going well right now. Everyone had a good break – we’re refreshed, we have a new mentality and we’re excited to play again."
It’s been a difficult year for the soft-spoken Russian, besieged by the infamous sophomore jinx. Through 55 games this season, he has only 11 goals and 23 points to his name; about a third shy of the pace he set as a rookie less than a calendar year ago.
The progression in Yakupov’s game has been anything but linear – and early on, the analyses were varied. A slow start spawned criticism, doubters gunning at the youngster’s raw defensive acumen and (rather exceptional) offensive ability.
Soon he was demoted to the third and fourth lines, his minutes rationed before being scratched altogether on back-to-back nights. Oh, there was panic. Eakins, who, behind the Oilers’ bench has faced his fair share of disparagement, was not oblivious to the noise. The banishments were educational, not punitive, he claimed.
Whatever you want to call it, the lessons are paying dividends today.
"Before the last couple games, we've seen progression and we've seen fallback, too," Eakins said. "That's pretty standard with a young player. With the veterans, they play at an even keel every night, while the younger players are more up and down, and that comes with experience. We’ve asked Nail to work smarter, not harder, and he’s really taken that to heart."
His linemates agree. Nugent-Hopkins, who himself had a difficult second year, heard the plight of his teammate louder than most.
"I think the biggest thing for any player in this league, young or old, is having confidence. If you don’t have it, chances are you’re going to struggle," he said. "Watching Nail right now, you can tell he’s much more sure of himself, both in his decision making and in his ability – as he should be. He’s a skilled player and he can really contribute to this team. His shot alone has already added such a different dimension to our line. Taylor and I are always encouraging him to use it as much as possible.
"Every player goes through tough stretches, but he’s handled it very, very well. The way he’s playing right now, it’s great to see."