Jim Neveau, Senior NHL Columnist
If there has been one consistent narrative over the past several NHL seasons, it has been the seeming epidemic of blows to the head that has fallen several big time stars. Whether it be David Steckel’s hit on Sidney Crosby, Matt Cooke’s on Marc Savard, or any of the other slew of players like Nicklas Backstrom who have missed time with concussions, the league has been forced to take a closer look at legislating hits to the head, and while no definitive results have emerged as of yet, the discussion is ongoing.
The NHL isn’t the only league having to deal with the issue of head shots, however. The OHL has its own problems to worry about now in the wake of a hit that its top player took last night. Nail Yakupov, largely considered to be the favorite to be selected number one overall when the NHL holds its Entry Draft in Pittsburgh in June, was hit in the head last night by Michael Halmo of the Owen Sound Attack and was barely able to get off the ice under his own power.
Before we delve into any specifics about the hit, here is a video of the play:
After seeing the play both in real time and in slow motion, several questions need to be asked. First off, is what Halmo did a suspendable offense? Was there intent to injure on the play? And finally, is Yakupov actually partly to blame for this collision, and what does it tell us about one of the top prospects in the game?
To start with, the hit Halmo laid here was absolutely suspendable. Some will argue that Yakupov ducked into the hit, or something to that effect, but the fact of the matter is that even if Yakupov put himself in a prone position, Halmo still led with his elbow, left his feet, and was certainly deserving of the charging major that he received. He got up a huge burst of speed in order to drive through Yakupov, and when you add all of those factors together, he should be looking at a lengthy ban, and the OHL would be well served to make sure that he missed a good chunk of time.
Going back to the first part of that paragraph, Yakupov did indeed put himself in a prone position. Even though Halmo still put a dangerous and illegal hit on him, Nail has to be more aware of his surroundings when he is on the ice. He held onto the puck for way too long, tried skating across the entire offensive zone, and was looking for an oncoming teammate to pass to instead of looking at the ice ahead of him, which is where Halmo happened to be lying in wait.
All of these actions may be permissible and okay to do in junior hockey, but if Yakupov tries to pull any of those things in an NHL game, he will be absolutely flattened by an opposing player. As many NHL players have learned the hard way, being able to simultaneously find teammates while protecting yourself with on-ice awareness is a necessary skill to have in your arsenal, and by looking at this video, it is pretty clear that Yakupov does not have this tool in his game yet.
Ultimately, however, the real story here isn’t how long a suspension Halmo deserves or whether Yakupov has the hockey smarts necessary to be a star at the next level. The real story here is whether or not Yakupov sustained a serious head injury, and whether or not that’s going to hamper not only his draft stock, but also whether it will have a negative impact on his future career. He has unquestionably one of the best offensive skill sets of anyone that is Draft-eligible this year, and he could be an incredible player at the next level. Seeing him get knocked into oblivion would be bad for the game as a whole, so the hope is that this young man can bounce back and be able to continue his development.