Nail Yakupov: Not a Bust

Talk about Nail Yakupov being a bust is absurd.

A bust is a draft pick that didn’t work out, drawing the lines as broadly as possible. A player would need to completely fail, be substantially worse than other players drafted after him or provide low value for the spot they were drafted in the context of their draft class to be considered a bust, and that’s not Yakupov.

Compared to other number one overall draft picks, he has far from being the messiah, but it’s time to come to grips with the context of Nail Yakupov and why talk of him being a bust is hyperbolic posturing.

A Weak Class

Yakupov wasn’t a bad pick by the Oilers and it wasn’t a failure of scouting.

You can use hindsight and say that at 11th overall Filip Forsberg may wind up being the most potent offensive force or that Tanner Pearson should have gone higher than 30th overall, but that’s playing a fantasy game.

At the time of the draft — a draft that, at this point, looks a little weak — it was really Yakupov as consensus number one among both scouts and fans. A poll at the Edmonton Journal asked who the Oilers should grab with their pick, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Murray or “Some other player.” 84.65% voted Yakupov. 3.44% said “Some Other Player.”

Recapping the draft, the Edmonton Journal’s Jonathan Willis said that Yakupov “was, according to virtually every scouting service out there, the best player available at this year’s draft.” Sure, Corey Pronman said at Hockey Prospectus prior to the draft that he questioned the infallible logic that Yakupov was an easy number one, but even he put Yakupov at number one in the end. (He interestingly put Mikhail Grigorenko at number two, followed by Galchenyuk, Forsberg, Teuvo Teravainen and Mathew Dumba. If you can get over Grigorenko, his picks turned out to be more accurate to their current value than what actually happened.)

For Edmonton, with the number one pick, it was Ryan Murray or Nail Yakupov.

If they didn’t go with Yakupov, which maybe would have addressed needs then and now a little more, they get Murray, but that’s not a change that makes anyone feel like their pick was a franchise-changer.

At number three, I’d argue that Galchenyuk has been better than Yakupov (see his growth on CF%Rel chart below), but comparing their stats, it’s not as though Galchenyuk is way ahead of where Yakupov is in raw totals. And there wasn’t really a movement for Galchenyuk being picked over Yakupov, with the pair playing on the Sarnia Sting together and Galchenyuk missing most of his draft year. The full year he played prior to that, Yakupov outscored Galchenyuk by 18 goals.

They’ve both scored 44 goals through their first 214 games, with Galchenyuk picking up an additional 17 assists and exhibiting stronger defensive play. Though that all bears looking at the comparison of what they’re working with. Montreal has been a strong team, going to the playoffs every year of Galchenyuk’s career. Edmonton has continued to accumulate number one draft picks.

If you start expanding that look at the 15 forwards selected in the 1st round of the 2012 draft, only Galchenyuk has played more games than Yakupov and only Galchenyuk has put up more points. Yakupov has over 30 points on the next closest guy. That may not hold forever, since this is still a developing class and injuries have prevented Pearson and Tomas Hertl from playing more games.

Below, the size of the bubbles is goals and the colors group them into forwards drafted in the top 10 picks, then 11-20 and 21-30.

Expanding that, here are the scoring rates and relative score-adjusted Corsi For (CF%Rel) for those same forwards.

Yakupov looks ok inside his draft class, which is still a young draft class. He’s not a standout, which is what we generally expect from a number one overall, but there simply isn’t a player in the draft class that is that standout player at this point. Some of them could become more highly regarded. Forsberg had a great rookie season, though so did Yakupov. In fact, Yakupov’s goals per game rate was higher than Forsberg in each of their rookie years. Yakupov’s possession numbers look like they have the potential to stabilize, while guys like Galchenyuk, Pearson and Hertl have shown some really great growth and may ultimately be more valuable players. Point being, I don’t think we truly know what kind of players these guys are yet. None of them are in their prime after three seasons and some change maximum (and one of those seasons was the lockout). We have a good sense of some of them, but are we ready to shut the door on Radek Faksa, who got his first taste of NHL action this season? Have we seen the best Teravainen has to offer?

Other Top Picks

So, if he’s fine inside his class, he’s surely the worst number one overall in recent history, right? Maybe, but that’s a product of the class in many respects. If they took Galchenyuk number one overall do we think the number one overall pick from the 2012 draft is ranked any higher in terms of offensive production versus other number ones in, say, the last 20 years? It’s probably not until 2000’s draft and Rick DiPietro before there’s a draft with a number one that would be ranked lower than Galchenyuk or Yakupov. (Leaving room for some debate about Erik Johnson, who probably pulled himself out of that debate in the last couple seasons.) But, even still, if you take any forward drafted in the top three spots and compare their first 214 NHL games1 to Yakupov’s, there’s precedent for the rocky start he’s had and the high pick. Here’s a comparison of those players over the a 10-draft span from 2012 to 2003. Players are sized by the number of trips they made to the playoffs in their first three seasons2. More on that in a moment.

Both Galchenyuk and Yakupov scored 44 goals in their first 214 games. That bests Jonathan Huberdeau (3rd overall, 2011) and Kyle Turris (3rd overall, 2007). Yakupov’s 100 points bests Turris and Jordan Staal (2nd overall, 2006).

They don’t best many, but all things considered, there’s some precedent, particularly if you account for the fact that a lot of these teams started to improve after acquiring the top picks, meaning that these players started to have a little more support than Yakupov’s had on a team that has perennially been at the bottom of the league and is still there today.

Of those 21 forwards listed, only six didn’t make it to the playoffs in their first three NHL seasons. Three of those six, of course, played for the Edmonton Oilers.

Where Nail Yakupov Stands

Yakupov, as a first overall, has been the recipient of some harsh criticism.

Expectations on Yakupov were high, and he hasn’t matched those expectations, but he’s not a bust. He was a logical pick at the time of the draft, he’s performed well compared to other forwards in his draft class and, like with other picks from that year, deserves to be given time to develop and find his game.

If he’s expected to be fully formed when a guy like Faksa, Pearson, Dumba or Hampus Lindholm can be considered to be developing still, penalizes Yakupov for being able to jump right into the NHL after being drafted.

He hasn’t been at the level of other number one overall draft picks, and in hindsight he hasn’t been as good as Galchenyuk, Hertl or Forsberg from his draft class, but the forwards of that draft class haven’t been a smashing success. He hasn’t been a superstar, and may never be, but he’s still a developing player and isn’t a bust.

1 Selected because that’s how many games Yakupov has played in the NHL.
2 Players with zero trips to the post season are given a value of 0.1 to make them visible on the chart.