The past season was supposed to be one that breathed life back into the career of Nail Yakupov. Traded to the St. Louis Blues from the Edmonton Oilers, who had drafted him first overall back in 2012, the thought was a change of scenery, new coaching staff and different culture surrounding the club could help Yakupov find the form that he achieved back in his rookie season when he notched 17 goals and 31 points in 48 games.
Instead, the Blues’ experiment fell flat.
Under coach Ken Hitchcock, Yakupov never really found a consistent fit in the lineup and that continued once St. Louis made a change behind the bench, putting Mike Yeo in charge of the club. Yakupov played a mere 40 games this past season, sitting out as a healthy scratch nearly three dozen times. And when Yakupov did get into the lineup, he barely played. He managed three goals and nine points, but his average ice time was that of a 12th forward — he skated 10:39 per game.
When his season ended with knee surgery in April, it was the finish of another disappointing year in a long line of disappointing years for Yakupov, who has had a career that is starting to resemble that of possibly the biggest first-overall bust in league history. At this point, he’s scored only 53 goals and 120 points in 292 games. For some context, Yakupov’s point total puts him nearly 30 back of Connor McDavid, who was drafted only two seasons ago, and Yakupov has less than twice as many points as Auston Matthews, who made his NHL debut just this past season. Even Aaron Ekblad, who was drafted in 2014, is a mere 24 points back of matching Yakupov’s point total, and Ekblad is a defenseman. Suffice to say it has been tough for Yakupov to adjust to and succeed in the NHL.
And given how difficult Yakupov’s career has been to this point, there was reason to believe that time may be running out — or, quite frankly, over — for the Russian winger in the NHL. After five mediocre big league campaigns, it wouldn’t have been all too shocking if he packed his bags and headed for the KHL for a chance to give his career a jolt. Turns out, though, that won’t be the case. Or at least not if Yakupov can help it.
According to Fox Sports Midwest’s Andy Strickland, Yakupov said Thursday he has no designs on heading back to Russia and he’s going to look for a home in the NHL next season. If Yakupov is going to stay, though, there’s a good chance it won’t be in St. Louis. So, where could Yakupov end up next season? Here are five franchises that could take a shot on him:
Vegas Golden Knights
Of all the possibilities, heading to Vegas might make the most sense for Yakupov. The one thing he needs most right now is playing time and some confidence, and he’d certainly get the former, if not the latter, with the Golden Knights. It’d be up to coach Gerard Gallant to find a way to incorporate Yakupov into the lineup, but maybe the swift-skating winger could discover some sort of chemistry with a couple of fellow Russians.
Right now, center Vadim Shipachyov is the only surefire NHLer the Golden Knights have next season, but there are rumors that Evgeni Dadonov could be set to join him in Vegas. If that’s the case, there’s the possibility for an all-Russian unit that also includes Yakupov. Does that work out? Who knows. But the one thing that’s for certain is the line would be freewheeling and allowed to try to make some magic offensively.
Vegas will almost certainly have a tough time finding a full roster of NHL-ready players, and while you could debate whether Yakupov is really all that NHL-ready given his performance over the past five seasons, he’s at least shown some scoring touch at the NHL level. Put him in a good situation and the Golden Knights could benefit.
Before Yakupov landed in St. Louis, there were reports that he was going to be heading to Chicago, instead. It would have been an interesting fit for a few reasons and it would have been an intriguing reclamation project for the Blackhawks. Yakupov almost surely would have gotten a shot to play alongside some incredibly talented players, and coach Joel Quenneville’s line blender definitely would have seen a shakeup that put Yakupov on Jonathan Toews’ wing at some point. Given the way Richard Panik performed in that spot this past season, it’s worth wondering if Yakupov could have been a fit, too.
Yakupov ending up in Chicago goes beyond the reclamation, though. Yakupov may have earned $2.5 million this past season, but there’s just about no chance he earns much more than $1 million on whatever deal he signs next, first-overall pick or not. He simply hasn’t put up the points to deserve that. With that in mind, can you think of a team other than the Blackhawks that will be as eager to improve their roster with almost no cap space? Chicago could use a cheap scoring option, and if Yakupov hits, it could provide some great value.
There are defensive concerns, of course, and that might not fly with Quenneville, but Yakupov as a potential low-risk, high-reward signing may be enticing to GM Stan Bowman.
Coach Claude Julien likes his team to play a defensively responsible game. That right there would be enough for most to consider this a fit not worth consideration. But one has to wonder if GM Marc Bergevin might not look at Yakupov’s history with Alex Galchenyuk back from their major junior days with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting and be interested in getting the band back together, so to speak.
Though he hasn’t shown it in recent years, what with his 36 goals in his past 244 games, Yakupov has the raw ability to be a scorer in the league. His shot is excellent and could make him a great power play weapon. And with the Canadiens in search of scoring this off-season, Yakupov could be an enticing option that comes with little risk and the possibility for high reward.
However, like Chicago, Montreal won’t want to break the bank on signing Yakupov. He’s going to have to come in cheap if he wants his chance. It might be a chance worth taking if the opportunity to reunite with Galchenyuk is there, though, because if the chemistry remains between the two, Yakupov could regain his confidence as a skilled scorer playing alongside someone with which he's quite familiar.
The Capitals are going to be considering some changes in the off-season, to be sure, but Washington is going to have to work around some cap restraints as they do so. For example, it’s unlikely that both T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams can remain in town, so there’s going to be holes to fill in the lineup. And though some may balk at the idea of bringing Yakupov aboard a ship that hasn’t been able to navigate tough post-season waters, he might be the kind of bottom-six addition that can be impactful.
It’s likely Yakupov wouldn’t take big minutes in Washington, if that’s where he chose to go, but he’d get the chance to operate on a highly skilled power play, likely play alongside some tremendous puck-distributing centers and he’d be around many of his fellow countrymen. Maybe guidance or a helping hand from someone such as Alex Ovechkin or Evgeny Kuznetsov could help jumpstart Yakupov’s dwindling career.
The money could work out in Washington, too, just as it would with any other team facing a cap crunch. Not to sound like a broken record, but Yakupov isn’t going to earn big bucks next year. He could fit under the cap and be a bottom-six speedster with scoring ability.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings are after a few things this off-season, but two of the most important, in big, bold letters, are speed and scoring. The sluggish, methodical and bruising style of play Los Angeles has employed over the past three years has left them trailing the speedier more skilled teams, so the Kings are going to look for anything that can kick their offense up a notch. With that in mind, why not try out Yakupov?
Of course he’s not going to come into the lineup and suddenly become a 30-goal scorer, but is a 20-goal season really all that far-fetched if he finds the right situation? He’s going to have an experienced team around him, one that’s hungry to get back into the winner’s circle and coming off of a season that is going to make them bent on playing at the top of their game. Coach John Stevens did wonders with the Flyers’ offense during his tenure there and his hiring could spark the Kings’ offense, as well, and Yakupov could be a part of that.
The one thing Yakupov surely brings that the Kings need, if not the scoring touch, is speed. As one of the oldest teams in the league, Los Angeles needs some young horses, too, and it’s not like those are coming in droves from the Kings’ depleted prospect pool. No team has a worse group of prospects than Los Angeles, according to a panel of scouts in THN’s Future Watch 2017, so bringing in a swift-skating 23-year-old winger who is hungry to prove he belongs in the league could go a long way. Is it the obvious fit? No, but it’s one that could certainly work.
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