By Alex Watson
Nail Yakupov was a healthy scratch for St Louis on Saturday. This was now the fifth time in eight games. Does the 22-year-old still merit a place in the NHL? In only 14 games, the Russian has only scored 4 points. The Blues appear to be losing patience with him. In his NHL career, this has become a recurring theme. After an underwhelming 4-year stint in Edmonton, the writing has been on the wall. The question for coach Ken Hitchcock will be whether or not to keep him?
Yakupov has been unable to match the high expectations required as a number one pick. It was recently revealed that before the 2012 draft, Oilers scouts voted 9 to 2 AGAINST drafting him. Unlike fellow number one picks Connor McDavid, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov looked lost and confused. Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli initially stood by him and Edmonton worked hard to develop his talent. During his 4 year stint in Alberta, he never scored higher than 33 points.
When Chiarelli realized he would never live up to his potential, they traded him to the St Louis Blues. When Yakupov scored in his debut in October, we all hoped he would turn it around. Since then his limited game time has affected his form. Again he has dug himself the same hole and Hitchcock seems reluctant to dig him out. What has caused this severe decline? Many have joked that this guy knows where the net is, but knows nothing else. Mark Spector from Sportsnet joked “he plays the game like he’s being chased by a swarm of bees.”
What can St Louis do to help him? Yakupov got the fresh start that he wanted but cannot seem to get ahead. The Blues have a deep roster including Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Steen and Paul Stastny. Yakupov has a difficult task to get ahead of these guys. One problem was that the young Russian never had a stable management figure in Edmonton. Ralph Kruger, Dallas Eakins, Todd Nelson and Todd McLellan all tried hard with him. St Louis sees him as a reclamation project that they’re keen on developing more slowly.
Part of the pressure of being a number one pick is that people consider you NHL ready. Yakupov looked out of his depth almost immediately and could never seem to swim well in competitive waters. One thing we should expect from St Louis is for them to reassign him to AHL side Chicago Wolves. While it might be a step back, playing at this level could give him a confidence boost.
The Oilers choose the wrong player in the 2012 draft, that much is clear. Yakupov is on borrowed time in the NHL and might want to consider where his future lies. Before, he stated he would not return home to play in KHL. In the future, this might become a viable option for him. Unless he gets over his failure to produce in Edmonton and starts performing again, his options are going to dry up very soon.
I believe there is still time for this guy to find a future in the NHL. At only 22 his time is not up yet and he just needs someone to believe in his talents. He may never be an outright star, there is still hope he could develop into a consistent player. St Louis is stocked on quality, but I hope they don’t resort to trading him. Bouncing around different teams will only cement his status as a draft bust. You can see a man desperate to find a good home. Sadly in hockey, nothing is guaranteed.