Nail Yakupov has been burdened by expectation his entire NHL career. In 2012, the Edmonton Oilers used the number one pick in the NHL Entry Draft on the Russian right winger, setting a lofty bar for his anticipated contributions.
Statistically, Yakupov has been the biggest bust of a first-overall draft choice since the Blues ill-fated selection of Erik Johnson in 2006. The comparison isn’t exact, as Johnson is a defenseman. That he didn’t score many points in St. Louis wasn’t a huge deal (his golf cart incident in 2008 that cost him the next season due to torn knee ligaments did cause some fan angst, though).
Even Johnson tallied 39 points in his best season in St. Louis. Yakupov, through four years in the NHL, touts 33 points as his single-season career-high. With that as a frame of reference, it’s easy to understand why reviews on Yakupov in Edmonton aren’t exactly glowing.
To his credit, Johnson has turned into a steady and productive player with the Colorado Avalanche after he was shipped out of St. Louis. Could Yakupov benefit from a similar change of pace with the Blues?
He got some help from former Oilers teammate Devan Dubnyk Thursday night. In the second period of the Blues home opener, Yakupov skated across the blue line and slapped a goal off the glove of the Minnesota goaltender. Dubnyk said after the game he didn’t see the puck off the blade very well.
Regardless, Yakupov will take it. His first goal as a member of the Blues aided a 3-2 win over the Wild Thursday, improving St. Louis to 2-0 on the young season.
“This is the first time I’ve scored from a slapshot,” Yakupov grinned.
Yakupov’s rare slapshot gave the Blues a 2-1 lead, after which they didn’t trail for the rest of the night. After trailing by two goals, Minnesota staged its best comeback effort with a goal midway through the third period, but the Blues held serve as the Wild pulled the goalie in the final moments.
With wins over Chicago and Minnesota, two division foes who were playoff teams a year ago, St. Louis has set out to show the league they aren’t going anywhere despite roster turnover the past summer.
For the newest Blue, that’s an exciting prospect. The Oilers never qualified for the playoffs while Yakupov was in Edmonton, finishing no better than sixth in their division over the past three seasons.
“To be on a good team, it’s unbelievable,” Yakupov said. “This team plays in the playoffs. Even in juniors, all my life, I’ve never played for a good team. I never had it. This is a great opportunity to grow your game and grow as a person.”
Magnus Paajarvi, a former line-mate of Yakupov in Edmonton, was the beneficiary of a Yakupov assist in the third period, scoring the goal that would prove to be the difference. He corroborated Yakupov’s claim that the slapshot isn’t typically his go-to method of production.
“You haven’t seen him too much,” Paajarvi said of Yakupov’s slapper. “He likes to wrist it, and he’s got a great wrister, but obviously the slapshot was the good one today.”
Blues Coach Ken Hitchcock has noticed Yakupov’s solid play over the first two games, but believes the tangible results of him notching some points was critical as he establishes a rapport with his new teammates.
“What it does is it makes him part of the team,” Hitchcock said. “He feels like he’s a contributing member of the family. It gives him another level of confidence. The points matter—they obviously matter.
“He had a lot of good play today, and there was a lot of special teams because of it, but he had a lot of good play. He’s a much stronger player than people realize. In time, it looks like he might be a real good fit for us.”
The Blues intend to bring Yakupov along slowly, playing him only in five-on-five situations for the time being. Because of the high volume of special teams minutes in the first two games, Yakupov’s time on the ice has been limited. The challenges are many, but Yakupov is effusive in acknowledging his battle ahead.
“It’s not easy,” Yakupov said, reflecting on his whirlwind week after being traded from Edmonton five days before the season opened. “I know the Blues are a really good team. Really good guys, really friendly—it’s a really good family here. But when you’ve been away for a long time, living in a different country, different city, different friends, you pretty much have nothing outside. Really good here, but as soon as you go outside after practice or after a game, you’re lonely, right? Those kinds of things, trying to get into your brain, in your mind, and you have to fight for it. You know, I’m fighting. I guess now it’s going to be much easier; I’m happy to get two points tonight and it’s going to be a much easier sleep for me tonight.”
The past week has not been easy on Nail Yakupov. Of course, not much has been in his NHL career. If his quick start in St. Louis is any indication, his fight to rewrite his story is just beginning.
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