Two of those four, Yakupov and Taylor Hall, are with other teams now. But while Hall is the scoring leader for the resurgent New Jersey Devils, Yakupov is struggling to find any growth with Colorado, the second team that took a chance on him after Edmonton.
Still just 24 and possessing the same explosive speed he’s always had, Yakupov has nine goals and 15 points in 43 games with the Avs, mostly fuelled by a good start. His ice time has been slowly falling away as other wingers have impressed and carved out a place for themselves on a young roster that’s still taking shape.
Thursday night will be Yakupov’s second trip back to his first NHL home since he was quietly traded to the St. Louis Blues in October of 2016 for Zach Pochiro and a third-rounder. His first trip back to Edmonton came just 13 days after the Oilers traded him, and he scored a goal.
“I know it’s cold, but I like this city, it’s been really good to me, especially the fans,” Yakupov told the media ahead of Thursday’s game.
Yakupov started his NHL career in Edmonton with a pretty good 17-goal, 31-point season under head coach Ralph Krueger. With a beaming and friendly smile, Yakupov was easy for fans to like. There’s the story of a homeless man in downtown Edmonton asking Yakupov for some change to get a coffee, and instead, Yakupov brought him into a restaurant and gave him $100 for dinner.
His hockey career never took off though. Yakupov never scored 17 goals again and has only passed his first-year point total once. Krueger was fired at the end of that season and wasn’t the last to go. Yakupov spent just four seasons with the Oilers and played under four different head coaches. His agent, Igor Larianov, talked last year about how he thought the coaching changes hurt the youngster’s confidence.
“I don’t want to blame anybody [that came] after Ralph, but I guess sometimes the player [can get] confused,” Larionov said on Sportsnet 590 the FAN. “Nail was making some mistakes, some turnovers, it’s normal. Everybody makes mistakes, especially young players. Krueger had patience and was kind of learning through the process of every game.”
The situation finally came to a head in the lead up to the 2016 trade deadline, when Yakupov requested a trade out of town.
He was left unqualified by the Blues last summer after scoring just three goals, then landed with the Avs as an unrestricted free agent on a one-year, $875,000 contract. He’ll be eligible for RFA status again this off-season.