When a player is selected with the first overall pick in an Entry Draft, regardless of the sport, they’re expected to be the best player in the draft class. A player who can make an impact in the league they’re joining and who ultimately could one day be considered an all-time great. For Nail Yakupov, the first-overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, none of that has come to fruition. Widely considered to be a bust, Yakupov has scored only 53 goals and 120 points in 292 games so far in his career. The dynamic, highly-skilled winger didn’t always look like a bust, however.
Debuting during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Yakupov played in all 48 games and scored an impressive 17 goals and 31 points. Pro-rating those figures to a full 82-game season, Yakupov was on pace to score 29 goals and 53 points in his rookie season. Unfortunately, Yakupov hasn’t scored more than 14 goals since that season. In 81 games in 2014-15, Yakupov scored 14 goals and marked career-highs in games played with 81, assists with 19 and points with 33. Those totals haven’t been beaten to date, and though plus-minus is considered an increasingly useless statistic, Yakupov has two seasons with a minus-33 or worse and a career minus-89.
It’s clear that Yakupov won’t collect a big payday on July 1. In fact, he’ll be lucky if he’s even signed in the first wave of free agency at all. Still, Yakupov clearly has potential and could find himself on an NHL roster for a variety of reasons next season. The first reason would be his cap hit. Any team interested in Yakupov will be unlikely to pay him over $1 million, if he even gets signed to a contract that big. As a secondary scoring option, a cheap cap hit like that is more than reasonable. Additionally, the fact that Yakupov has the talent that he does, a team could look to take a low-risk, high reward bargain on the Russian forward who’s just looking for another opportunity at this point in his young career at just 23 years old. As such, the following six teams could be suitors for Yakupov once free agency hits.
The Montreal Canadiens are a natural fit if they retain Alex Galcheynuk this offseason. Though there have been reports flying left and right about the Canadiens actively shopping their young forward, there are also reports that the Canadiens are staying in constant communication with Galchenyuk and his agent to try and reach a contract extension. If the Canadiens and Galchenyuk do re-up on a contract and the 23-year-old stays in Montreal, the team’s interest in Yakupov should see a significant spike. The Canadiens severely lack offense in their lineup as well and the addition of a 23-year-old former first-overall draft pick would be a smart move despite the fact that Yakupov has only scored 11 goals and 32 points over the last two seasons.
Why is Galchenyuk the key to the Canadiens’ interest in Yakupov? To answer that question, it’s important to remember where both players came from before being drafted first overall (Yakupov) and third overall (Galchenyuk) in 2012. Playing together in the OHL with the Sarnia Sting, the duo of Galchenyuk and Yakupov was a force to be reckoned with. During the 2010-11 season, Galcheyuk scored 31 goals and 83 points in 68 games – a point total good for third in the OHL among rookies that season, behind only Sven Baertschi and Yakupov, his linemate with the Sting. In 65 games in that very same season, while flanking Galchenyuk in Sarnia, Yakupov scored 49 goals and 101 points and proved to be a true game-changer. Reuniting the two at the NHL level could prove to be a smart move to try and rejuvenate both players moving forward.
The Dallas Stars need for help on the right-side isn’t a secret. Whether it’s alongside Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin on the team’s top line or as a flank for second-line center Jason Spezza, right winger depth on the Stars is noticeably thin. With Yakupov hitting the open market on July 1 and likely to sign a prove-it deal that will come with low risk, the Stars would be wise to at least explore the possibilities of signing the Russian winger to try and fill a need without breaking the bank on July 1.
The Stars could also be getting Russian forward Valeri Nichushkin back soon after he left the NHL to play in the KHL. Bolstering an offense with two prospects who haven’t yet hit their potential but who both come with significant levels of skill and talent could be exactly what the Stars need to make it back to the top of the Central Division standings. Adding both Ben Bishop and Marc Methot already this offseason while also shaking up their coaching staff, filling their remaining holes at the right wing position with minimal risk could be a tremendous under-the-wire move by the Stars as they look to compete in one of the toughest divisions in hockey.
Behind David Pastrnak, the Boston Bruins don’t have very much depth at the right wing position. Filling out the other top-six role on the right side for the Bruins last season was David Backes – a natural center who has played both as a center and winger over the last few seasons. Outside of those two, the Bruins are limited to just Riley Nash, Tyler Randell and Brian Ferlin as right wingers. The latter four players are all best suited as fourth-liners with Hayes and Nash capable of playing a third-line role if needed. The Bruins could also re-sign Drew Stafford, though they’d still benefit from signing Yakupov to bolster their lineup on the right side with very little cost and risk involved.
Giving Yakupov on a one-year prove-it deal worth $1 million or less would do a few things for the Bruins. It would add an extra body to their roster who can compete for a third-line role with a chance to move up to play alongside either Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci. It would give the Bruins a young right winger with tremendous potential – something they could sorely need as their system, though stacked with high-end talent, is lacking in the right wing department outside of 2015 first round pick Zachary Senyshyn.
If Yakupov finds his stride in Boston, the team could extend his contract – essentially finding a valuable prospect with little risk, or they could trade him at the deadline depending on where the team sits in the standings. If Yakupov fails to pan out and continues to dwindle the way he has so far in his career, the Bruins could move on and not bat an eye as they didn’t have to move any assets to acquire him.
Despite making it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, the Nashville Predators are very clearly missing forward depth. While Yakupov might not fix their need for a legitimate top-six winger (or two), he could potentially fit in nicely in a bottom-six role. Familiar with the Central Division from his brief stay in St. Louis, Yakupov could rejuvenate his career with a team that finished just shy of their ultimate goal last season. Yakupov’s ability to play both wings also him in this situation as the Predators could use help on both sides heading into free agency.
Yakupov may not be the difference maker between a Stanley Cup victory or loss, but he’s certainly a step in the right direction for a team looking to add skill and potential to their lineup. Heading into free agency on July 1, the Predators only have nine NHL forwards under contract. Pending free agents (both restricted and unrestricted) include captain Mike Fisher, alternate captain Vernon Fiddler, Austin Watson, Harry Zolniervzyk, Fredy Gaudreau, P.A. Parenteau, Ryan Johansen, Pontus Aberg and Viktor Arvidsson. Whether or not the Predators retain their free agents, it’s clear that they will need some additional firepower heading into next season.
The Florida Panthers offense is in desperate need of fixing for the 2017-18 season. Similarly to the Predators, the Panthers are very thin at the forward position heading into free agency. With only seven forwards currently under contract, the Panthers will need to be one of the more active teams during the coming free agency period, especially if they plan on competing in an ever-crowded Atlantic Division that typically hosts a tough playoff race all the way to the end of the season.
In terms of the players that the Panthers do have under contract, the majority of them boast significant cap hits. Aaron Ekblad ($7.5 million), Yandle Keith ($6.35 million) Johnathan Huberdeau ($5.9 million), Aleksander Barkov ($5.9 million), Vincent Trocheck ($4.75 million), Nick Bjugstad ($4.1 million) as well as two goaltenders earning $4.533 million and $3.4 million in Roberto Luongo and James Reimer respectively. With so many hefty deals already in place, the Panthers could benefit from a player like Yakupov who will come cheap with very little risk.
Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings could use some scoring help. While the team has big names like Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli and Marian Gaborik who can produce offense, secondary scoring will be key to the Kings success in the 2017-18 season. Adding a player like Yakupov on an inexpensive deal, or even a PTO could benefit the club as they share a similar goal to the young winger – returning to prominence.
With the Kings making changes to their front office, they could look to Yakupov to provide some valuable depth to their team. Change is very clearly afoot in Los Angeles, and with that, an opportunity could be there for the taking for Yakupov as he looks to find his place in the NHL after a very disappointing start to what originally promised to be a superstar-quality career. Signing a player with the potential that Yakupov in a role that wouldn’t put much pressure on him is something that the Kings could look to do as they look to compete in stacked division and conference.
Brandon Share-Cohen has covered the NHL and various professional sports for six years. Working with The Hockey Writers, Brandon works extensively on covering the Boston Bruins in addition to his role as the News Team Lead.