Nail Yakupov didn’t snap. Not quite. But he did make his point very clearly on Monday morning, and there was not a hint of a smile on his face while he said it.
“Every day I am talking to media all about defence. I don’t want to talk about this. Sometimes, it pisses me off,” he declared. “Let’s talk about different things. Everyone is asking me about defence. I’m not a defensive (player). I like to play forward too.”
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If Yakupov wants to change the conversation, perhaps he should emulate his former junior teammate Alex Galchenyuk, drafted two picks later in 2012. Because when you are minus-39 over your past 71 games, sorry Yak, it becomes a talking point.
Of course, the Nizhnekamsk, Russia native is not alone in Edmonton. The Oilers front office has had it up to here with being second-guessed over whether or not they messed up their third of three consecutive No. 1 overall picks, by taking Yakupov.
No. 1 on the list of players Edmonton should have taken, according to many, is the guy who will be wearing No. 27 for the Montreal Canadiens tonight at Rexall Place — Galchenyuk. After that, the list of defencemen taken in the Top 10 two years ago provides a handful of players who would be in the Top 4 on Edmonton’s weak blueline today.
Ryan Murray (Columbus at No. 2), Morgan Rielly (Toronto, No. 5), Hampus Lindholm (Anaheim, No. 6), Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg, No. 9) — all appear to be ahead of Yakupov in their learning curves. As is Galchenyuk, who dined with Yakupov Sunday on the eve of this meeting between the Oilers and Canadiens.
“He invited me over, picked me up. Dinner was great,” said Galchenyuk, who is American-born, in Milwaukee. His father came from Moscow Dynamo to play minor pro here in the early ‘90s.
Galchenyuk and Yakupov landed together in Sarnia, the only two Russian-speaking players on the team. They remain close today, texting and talking by phone during the season, and gorging on Mama Yakupov’s cooking whenever possible.
“Good salad, Russian soup, good duck, some other Russian food. Pasta, chicken…” said Yakupov, whose mother lives with him in Edmonton. (Mrs. Galchenyuk has come to live in Montreal too, but in a separate residence.) “For us, our dinner every day is like your dinner on Christmas or Thanksgiving,” Yakupov continued. “Everything on the table, eat as much as you can, and just enjoy as much as you can. Your stomach is getting swollen, you can’t move for a couple of hours. But, it’s getting good after that.”
Speaking of getting good, the two 2012 draft picks are watching their games come around — Galchenyuk well ahead of Yakupov this season. The Habs forward has found a home on the right wing, and thus far has not become the big, left-handed shooting centreman everyone envisioned on draft day.
But he is playing 16:22 per game this season, compared to Yakupov’s 13:05, while their production isn’t close this season. In eight games each, Galchenyuk has three goals and seven points, while Yakupov has one goal and three points. And the kicker: Galchenyuk is plus-4, Yakupov minus-6.
Thus, the constant questions for Yakupov about his defensive game, questions that Galchenyuk simply doesn’t have to face — because he does his talking on the ice, plays on a far better team, and doesn’t bear the pressure of having been chosen first overall.
Last season, a nightmare sophomore campaign for Yakupov, “He sensed that he needed to be this guy,” said grinder Matt Hendricks, pointing to Taylor Hall’s stall. “Like he had to get a point per game in order for everyone in here to think he’s achieving.”
Hendricks sits next to Yakupov in the Oilers bathhouse, and has seen a withdrawn second-year player come out of his shell this season. Now, wonders Oilers fan, when will that begin to show on the score sheet?
“What’s a good year for him, as a second-, third-line guy?” Hendricks asks. “Forty points is a good year. Is he on track for that? If he can achieve 40-50 points, for a second-, third-line guy? It’s a great year.”
We shouldn’t be talking about a No. 1 pick playing on the second or third line, but that’s where Galchenyuk played Monday — alongside Tomas Plekanec and P.A. Parenteau on Montreal’s second unit.
It may just be that drafting Yakupov was a mistake by Edmonton. But at age 21, personally, we will reserve judgment. I recall when it was a given that Taylor Hall was the gem of the 2010 draft, until Jeff Skinner won the Calder Trophy in 2011. Then in 2013, No. 2 pick Tyler Seguin arrived in Dallas, and prior to Monday’s games, he led the NHL in scoring early in the 2014-15 season.
And today, personally, we’d still take Hall if it were my call to make.
When you’re talking about 21-year-olds, these things take a while to sort themselves out. Today however, Galchenyuk is a better, more well-rounded player than Yakupov.
You can bet your Borscht on that.