The best line to ever describe Nail Yakupov sounds mean spirited, but in fact it describes his game to a ‘T.’
“He plays like a guy being chased by a swarm of bees,” someone once said.
All over the place, all the time. Now he’s in St. Louis, and in the annals of hockey lore, Yakupov sidles up next to Alexandre Daigle as one of the worst No. 1 overall picks in National Hockey League history.
Of course the Edmonton Oilers chose him.
Offensively, defensively, off the ice with his teammates… Nobody ever knew where to find Nail Yakupov. There was no system he could follow, no traditional path to success he could be led down.
Coach after coach told him where to go to support the puck, but when support was required he was somewhere else. They ringed the puck around the boards to the place he was supposed to be, but Yakupov was never there when it arrived, for reasons unknown.
They coached him on where to go when the puck was in the offensive zone, but too often when his centreman looked up to pass him the puck, he was elsewhere. It was like he had learned only to score as a junior in Sarnia, but somehow never to play hockey.
Teammates invited him to dinner with the boys. He most often had something else to do.
Fittingly, the Nail Yakupov era began with a vote by the Oilers scouts: It was 9-2 against taking him ahead of defenceman Ryan Murray at the 2012 draft. The brain trust of then-GM Steve Tambellini, Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe, in yet another of the brilliant decisions that orchestrated an NHL-record 10 consecutive playoff misses, overruled their scouts and took Yakupov anyhow.
That mistake haunted the Oilers until Friday, when — after months of shopping him — they unloaded Yakupov for 22-year-old Zach Pochiro and a third-round draft pick.
If Yakupov scores 15 goals this season, it becomes a second rounder. If Pochiro plays an NHL game, it will surprise many.
Yakupov will go to the St. Louis Blues, and he’ll hear from head coach Ken Hitchcock exactly the same words he had heard from Oilers coach Todd McLellan, and every coach before. If he’s smart enough, he’ll heed the advice and become an NHL player.
If not, the fallback lies in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Let the record show: Yakupov, now 23, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, produced 50 goals and 111 points in exactly 252 games for Edmonton. On average, a 16-goal season. Last season, 133 players had more than 16 NHL goals.
As for Edmonton, this is another transaction in the process of rolling over a franchise. Another turn of the wheel in leaving behind years of terrible decision making for better seasons ahead.
From Taylor Hall’s Oilers, to Connor McDavid’s Oilers. From the weakest blue line in the NHL to — in a move made official Friday night — a team that picks up Kris Russell in a bid to be, at the very least, more difficult to score on than in years past.
In the same day, general manager Peter Chiarelli expunged the past in moving Yakupov, and sent his own acquisition — Griffin Reinhart — to the minors in what could rank as the next most disastrous trade in Oilers history.
But in the same way Milan Lucic was brought in to replace Hall, Russell will step into the spot that had been hopefully reserved for Reinhart. One idea didn’t work, so let’s move in to the next.
It’s clumsy, but they’re moving ahead in Edmonton.
You have to move fast, to outrun a past like this one.