EDMONTON — Nail Yakupov is the lost No. 1 in Edmonton.
While Taylor Hall has emerged as the third most productive left-winger in the NHL over the past three seasons (behind Alex Ovechkin and Jamie Benn), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins discovered his game last season. You won’t find anyone who doesn’t believe he will become the franchise centreman that every No. 1 overall is supposed to evolve into.
And Connor McDavid? Well, he hasn’t played an NHL game yet, but as Yakupov says, "He seems like he will be OK."
As for the affable Russian, who leaned up against the tailgate of his Ford truck as we spoke outside of Perry Pearn’s annual 3-on-3 pro conditioning camp, "OK" just isn’t an option. Not when you were drafted with the No. 1 pick in 2012, ahead of franchise defencemen like Hampus Lindholm and Jacob Trouba.
He will embark upon his fourth NHL season this October, and the Nizhnekamsk native — whose English has improved markedly — has to figure out how to translate his junior game (80 goals and 90 assists in his last 107 games with the Sarnia Sting) into success at the NHL level.
"It’s my fourth year in the league. I know the town, know the city, know the people. It’s good here," he said. "It was really good to finish last year very strong. We have good centres now. I have to just use my speed, shoot the puck more. Do what I can do."
It’s no secret that former coach Dallas Eakins and Yakupov didn’t mesh. When Todd Nelson took over behind the Oilers bench Yakupov’s game blossomed, with 9 goals and 20 points in his final 28 games.
Yakupov is that junior scorer who was allowed absolute freedom in Sarnia as long as he continued to produce points. When he arrived in the NHL, Yakupov’s centreman complained they had no clue where he would end up at any given moment, and his defensive game was horrendous.
Every young offensive player is tasked with figuring out how to be productive in the NHL while supplying professional-calibre defensive play. The jury is still out on whether Yakupov, with back-to-back seasons of minus-33 and minus-35, will ever find the key to that lock.
There is still an obvious reserve of talent here (and quite a nice young man, we might add), but thus far only Nelson has approached success in mining that lode — without the puck ending up in the wrong net more often than not. New Oilers coach Todd McLellan will take on that project now, on an Oilers team that, for the first time in forever, is very strong down the middle with Nugent-Hopkins, McDavid, Anton Lander and newcomer Mark Letestu.
Jordan Eberle is a lock for RNH’s right side, so for a sniping right-winger like Yakupov, the goal will be to secure the spot to McDavid’s right, likely with Hall on the opposite wing. That might just be too much offence for one line.
"We’re going to fight for that (spot), and it won’t be easy," he said. "Now we have centres. There is so much talk about McDavid, he seems like he will be OK. It’s all about our wingers now. We’ve got to help our D. The D have to help our goalies. It all has to be better."
Yakupov will rent New York Islanders defenceman and Edmonton native Johnny Boychuk’s home, where his parents will live with Yakupov and his younger sister, who attends high school in Edmonton. The soon-to-be 22-year-old is like everyone else in the city — cautiously optimistic about his team’s chances after so many Octobers that opened with promise but ended with abject disappointment.
"It’s too early to say something about our team," Yakupov said. "New coach, new GM (Peter Chiarelli) and we have new players. So, everyone is excited to step on the ice … but we’ve got to do something better than the last eight years. What we’re going to do is fight for playoffs. That’s all our fans are waiting for.
"Of course I am positive," he continued. "One year it is going to happen for sure — maybe this year. We can’t focus on the past. That’s why the organization got a new coach, new GM, new players, right? They’re doing everything they can do."
The feeling here is that, certainly, this Oilers team could turn into something special, with McDavid, an experienced coach and a proven GM. The question is, with this much offensive talent, can Yakupov find a niche and become part of the project? Or will the late-blooming No. 1 be a trading chip in the building of this team?
"I just want to play another 20 years in the league. Until 40, for sure," he laughed. "This team is coming up. It’s going to be really good, and I’m feeling it’s going to be a really good year. From this team, I don’t think you want to go anywhere else. It’s a good place to be, with our fans, the new rink coming up…"
The new rink, new coach, new GM, new superstar…
"We have everything, right? Now, we have to change a little bit, and show the best way in Edmonton."