Nail Yakupov’s Last Chance to Earn an NHL Career

When the Colorado Avalanche signed the former 2012 first-overall pick, Nail Yakupov, just under a week ago, I was a little confused.

Why would a team who just had the worst season since the Atlanta Thrashers first joined the League, sign a player who’s struggled to make his mark in the NHL? Does Avalanche general manager, Joe Sakic, and head coach, Jared Bednar, think that they can revitalize Yakupov’s career and help him live up to his draft status?

Whatever the reason, this is Yakupov’s last chance to earn a career in the NHL. With little depth on the right-wing, Yakupov will likely play a top-six role with the Avalanche, which will be plenty of time to shine or fail.

“Nail is a young, skilled winger who will add depth to our lineup,” said Sakic in a press release. “We look forward to seeing him at training camp.”

With a one-year, $875,000 deal, it’s a low risk, high reward deal for Colorado. At best, he lives up to his first-overall status. At worst, he sits in the press box or is buried in the minors.

With his addition to the team, Colorado now has six top-five draft picks since 2006 in their organization; Erik Johnson, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Nail Yakupov, Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar.

A New Hope for Yakupov

Coming into the 2012 season, Yakupov was called the most offensively gifted player in the draft. He scored 101 points during his rookie season in 2010-11 for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League and was named rookie of the year.

In his first year the NHL, Yakupov showed signs that he was going to be an impactful player. In the lockout shortened season of 2012-13, he scored 31 points in 48 games with the Edmonton Oilers.

Nail Yakupov
Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TDAY Sports)

When Yakupov is at his best, he’s a skilled forward that can score and create space for himself and his teammates. There is a reason he went first overall in his draft class.

Yakupov’s agent, former Detroit Red Wing, Igor Larionov, believes that can be an effective player in the NHL.

“When I talked with [Sakic], the plan is for him to be a top-six winger. I think he can and will score 20-25 goals,” Larionov told BSN Denver’s Adrian Dater.

If Duchene doesn’t get traded, there’s a good chance that Yakupov plays on the same line as him. Despite Duchene’s most recent season, he can score points, and elevate the play of his teammates. If Yakupov can recapture his scoring touch from his first season, he and Duchene can be a dangerous duo to deal with.

Yakupov’s Struggles

(Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

If you told Avalanche fans in 2012, that they would eventually have Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko on their team, they would rightfully be excited to have that type of talent on the roster. Hindsight is 20/20 though, and today, one just signed in the Kontinental Hockey League, and the other one is barely holding on to an NHL job.

Since his first season, Yakupov’s play has fallen off. After spending four seasons with the Oilers, he was traded to the St. Louis Blues for Zach Pochiro and a conditional third round draft pick.

He didn’t fare any better with the Blues. He averaged about 10 minutes of ice time per game and was a healthy scratch in the playoffs. Just like there was a reason he went first overall, there’s a reason why he wasn’t qualified by the Blues during the off-season.

It’s easy to blame Yakupov’s early career struggles on Dallas Eakins and his mismanagement of him, but it can also be blamed on Yakupov’s lack of hockey IQ. It’s well known that Yakupov isn’t the smartest player offensively or defensively. He frequently gets lost on the ice and misses his assignments in the defensive zone.

Just like the Avalanche did with Grigorenko, they are hoping that Yakupov can live up to his potential. He will be a boom or bust. Either he succeeds as a top-six winger, or he becomes a healthy scratch because his skillset isn’t useful in a bottom-six role.