Nail Yakupov's talent is undeniable, but does Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins and the rest of the organization have the patience to make it work with the uneven young forward?
It was Halloween 2002 and Curt Fraser was frustrated with Ilya Kovalchuk. The Atlanta Thrashers (remember them?) lost eight straight to start the season and a game in Toronto was next.
The coach wanted to make a point. He scratched Kovalchuk, knowing that doing it in the NHL's media capital would get attention. The Thrashers tied the Maple Leafs 3-3 (remember ties?), then won four out of five.
The story did not have a happy ending, though, for Fraser. With eight wins in 33 games, he was fired in late December.
Dallas Eakins's decision to scratch Nail Yakupov in Toronto was eerily similar to the Kovalchuk move. There are two major differences. First, Eakins is a lot more secure now than Fraser was then. Second, the banishment lasted just one night for Atlanta. Yakupov sat a second straight game on Monday in Washington.
No one can expect Yakupov to like being scratched, but players generally understand it can happen once. Twice (especially when the first one is a loss) is a big deal.
If you're the Oilers, you have to trust that Eakins knows exactly what he is doing. He was a very attractive coaching candidate last summer because of how well he developed young players. During his time with the AHL's Toronto Marlies, he was not afraid to publicly call out Nazem Kadri, and there is no doubting Kadri is a much better player for his time with Eakins.
Of course, that won't stop the speculation that Yakupov will either be a) traded, or b) wearing a Salavat Yulaev jersey next week. The KHL thing seems unlikely. He's shown zero inclination and, even if he did, the NHL/Oilers would fight this defection much harder than Kovalchuk's.
As for a trade, you can sense how eager Edmonton is to do something. In our Inside Hockey Feature about Eakins, he says, "We're not here to develop players anymore, we're here to win hockey games."
From 2005-06 through 2011-12, just three of 32 teams who were four points out of a playoff position on November 1 recovered to make it. The Oilers are already five back and may be in a huge hole by the time Sam Gagner returns. Shot totals say they aren't being manhandled like last year, but the goaltending is poor and they violate what I call the "Bob Gainey Rule" -- you have to be able to check to win.
For example, with 55 seconds left in Saturday's 6-5 overtime loss in Toronto, the Maple Leafs ice the puck. After a faceoff in Toronto's end, Phil Kessel is allowed to skate the puck right into the Edmonton zone. Twenty-five seconds later, it's a tie game.
GM Craig MacTavish, who played the checking role to perfection, understands this failure better than anyone.
Monday morning, Yakupov told Edmonton reporters, "I don't really like playing without the puck, skate all the time and do forecheck and hit somebody every shift... I don't think it's my game."
That's an alarming quote, although you must be careful with young players who don't speak English as a first language. Sometimes nuance gets lost. But this is the kind of programming the Oilers will need to change -- and not only in Yakupov -- to be successful.
He may not be playing top-six minutes right now, but Ales Hemsky (who does) and Ryan Smyth (who gets some) aren't in the team's long-term plans. Yakupov's talent is undeniable. He could score a lot of goals for this team for a long time.
The question is: do the player and the team have the patience to make it work?
1. Obviously, the biggest debate in Edmonton is what goalie the Oilers should chase. They are at 49 contracts, so signing a free agent or trading a draft pick for a player completely eliminates roster flexibility. Brian Elliott makes sense, but St. Louis may not be interested in taking salary in return. Is it worth giving up an asset to get someone (Elliott, Ryan Miller) who is unrestricted after the season without trying to sign them first? Ottawa probably wouldn't trade him, but Robin Lehner would be a perfect target.
2. Lehner, by the way, said he is down 18 pounds from his playing weight when Binghamton won the 2011 Calder Cup. He was 245 pounds then. He's now 227 and still looks huge. He was great last weekend, making 92 saves in less than 24 hours in San Jose and Anaheim.
3. After playing 28, 26 and 25 minutes in his first three games, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had just five shifts in the third period of Monday's 4-2 loss in Washington. The Oilers go back-to-back with Pittsburgh on Tuesday, so Eakins may have been resting him for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Unlike some other high picks, Nugent-Hopkins never played this much in junior. In Red Deer, he said coach Jesse Wallin rarely had him play 25 minutes a night.
4. Final Edmonton note: Eakins is keeping all sorts of data on his players' workout habits. "The one thing in hockey that we've been so far behind on is the collection of data," he said. "There's a lot of people out there who will tell you that this is how you train a hockey player. Well, I don't know how they came up with that, because no one's been collecting data at all... Now, we can go and look and see, is [a player] quicker? Is he more powerful? Because if he's not, we're doing something wrong."
5. Back to Ottawa: is one of the reasons it is giving up so many shots because of hybrid icing? Blues coach Ken Hitchcock says it's possible. "Teams that played puck pursuit and knew they'd win races don't have the same advantage," he said last week. "If you're a step behind now, it's a dead play... turns into a faceoff at the other end." He named the Senators and Bruins as teams that often won those races. (In an interview with The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Hitchcock also named Chicago.)
6. Hitchcock on the shallower nets: "The new nets have created a dramatic difference on wraparounds and stuff plays. We'll see more goal crease goals... but we're also seeing a big change in a defending team's exit strategy. For the first time, defencemen can make direct plays to each other from behind the net instead of indirect plays." Makes it easier to get out of your zone and start transition.
7. An NHL exec on last week's 3-2 St. Louis victory over Chicago: "That was a big boy's game."
8. In preparing for that one, Blues defenceman Barret Jackman was asked about slowing down Chicago. "You have to disrupt their ability by going through their hands," he said. What exactly does that mean? "[Hitchcock] wants us going through people. Not 'to people.'" As if playing St. Louis wasn't punishing enough beforehand.
9. San Jose will probably get the same treatment in what should be another "big boy's game" Tuesday. There's great skepticism when it comes to the Sharks because of last year's 7-0 start, followed by an 0-4-3 nosedive. There's a difference if you believe in Corsi (which combines all shot attempts -- on net, missed and blocked). In 2012-13, San Jose and its opponents were even through those first seven games. This year, the Sharks are outshooting their opposition 78-50 a night. That's pretty big.
10. Two more Jackman observations. On Alex Pietrangelo: "I will not be surprised if he is up for the Norris Trophy. His offensive ability, the way he sees the ice, is right up with Drew Doughty, although he's not as physical. His hockey smarts are right up with Duncan Keith."
11. On Kevin Shattenkirk: "He has all the tools. Sometimes he's not as intense and gets caught watching. But he cares and he's definitely going to grow. [Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk] are the present and future of this team."
12. Speaking of futures, as Glenn Healy reported on Hotstove, the Maple Leafs and Dion Phaneuf are ready to discuss the captain's future. The free-agent market isn't overflowing with defencemen, which increases his value. But the belief is Phaneuf wants to stay. If he bends a little on average annual value, the betting is Toronto goes big on term. We'll see.
13. The trade market was very cool last week, with one of the reasons being that Calgary and Colorado are both off to strong starts. They had showed willingness to explore ideas, but when you're going well, there's not as much reason to do so, especially early.
14. Will that change? There are a couple of situations to keep an eye on. Kris Letang is nearing a return for the Penguins, which doesn't necessarily complicate things. But, if Pittsburgh wants to keep Olli Maatta instead of returning him to junior, there's a glut. They could keep eight defencemen, go the waiver route, or try to deal.
15. Sounds like a few teams have asked about the Kings' Alec Martinez. He's in and out of the lineup, but did play 20 games in the team's 2012 Stanley Cup run. At 26, he's signed to a team-friendly deal ($1.1 million US this season and next).
16. Montreal did look around for a defenceman, but decided to give Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi more time.
17. Then there's Buffalo. Darcy Regier plays his cards very tight. Interestingly, three different teams have talked about how much they like Thomas Vanek even though the Sabres aren't scoring much. What does hurt Regier here is the perception Vanek wants to go to Minnesota. No one is saying there's any tampering going on, I'm not even sure the Wild can do it cap-wise, and a lot can change in eight months. But there's circumstantial evidence. He went to school there, has a home there and his wife is from there.
18. It increases the likelihood he is dealt later as a pure rental because teams are wary of giving up their best assets for someone they aren't convinced they'll have a shot to sign. Potential solution: a team is given the option to extend him before making a deal. As far as I can tell, though, that has not happened yet.
19. Best line by a GM about the Vanek/Wild scenario: "Everybody thinks everyone from Minnesota is going to sign with Minnesota."
20. Will Carolina sign Manny Malhotra? He won 22 of 29 faceoffs in his first two games of a tryout with the Hurricanes' AHL affiliate in Charlotte, and is particularly lethal on the left side. The Checkers did not play last week, and it's believed a meeting took place between Malhotra and the NHL team. Obviously, the big question is his safety at the highest level. If he is not signed, it is expected several others will scout him this weekend against Iowa.
21. Did Bob Hartley pull a "Fast Eddie Felson" (Google it, fantastic movie) on the rest of the NHL? One scout who saw the Flames in the preseason said they showed nothing similar to what they did when the puck dropped for real. "When I saw them, they were backing up and trapping... didn't apply pressure," he said. "Now they are. Players like Sean Monahan were concentrating on doing the right thing positionally and now it's becoming more instinctive for them."
22. Calgary is about to start a brutal five-game road trip. There are going to be tough nights, but the Flames have established they will compete hard. "[Hartley's] got them working," the scout said. "They're in good shape and young kids have the stamina to play the pressure game he wants them to use."
23. When Craig Berube raged against the number of penalties the Flyers take, he hit on the biggest weakness other teams pinpointed with Philadelphia. "Undisciplined," was an oft-used adjective to describe them. Another common description: "They go offside too much."
24. If the Rangers miss the playoffs, their exhibition schedule may go down as the reason. By going to Banff even before their long season-opening trip, they've spent more than three weeks away from home in 10 hotels over four different time zones. A heavy schedule forced them to carry 39 players, which prevented their best lineup from getting much action together before opening night.
25. That's a nightmare for practice time, especially under a new coach and system. Now, they have three road games in 12 days, two of them involving ground travel (Philadelphia and New Jersey). This will be a crucial time in their season.
26. Boston played its fifth game on Monday, a 3-2 loss to Detroit. That puts Jarome Iginla halfway towards collecting one of the biggest bonuses of his incentive-laden contract: $3.7 million for appearing in 10 games. Iginla's base salary is $1.8M, but is structured this way to shift much of the cap stress until next season.
27. Apparently, the only teams who started the season without any bonus-eligible contracts were Los Angeles and Vancouver.
28. Wednesday is the next meeting between the NHL and NHLPA to discuss the international hockey "calendar." No announcements are expected, but there is a thought that only two teams, not four as initially thought, will go over to Europe for games next season.
29. Last week, a Phoenix judge ruled against the league in its attempts to recoup $112 million in losses from owning the Coyotes and $6.5 million in salary owed to Wayne Gretzky from the team's former owner, Jerry Moyes. Attempts to recover legal fees and money owed to creditors (totaling about $26 million) remains in play. It is expected the NHL will appeal, because it doesn't need the aggravation of bankruptcy filings. Of course, by getting some of its problem teams sold, the hope is this won't be necessary again.
30. In the aftermath of the dressing room controversy last week in Vancouver, there was concern the NHL (or teams) would move to end media access to the dressing rooms. Having reporters in that area is a North American phenomenon. Elsewhere, players walk through a media "mixed zone" that makes things harder, in my opinion. In an unofficial poll of media relations people, my sense is there isn't the appetite to make that move.
Elliotte FriedmanElliotte joined CBC in October 2003 and is a commentator with Hockey Night in Canada.
As part of his duties with Hockey Night in Canada, Friedman hosts Inside Hockey, a feature airing every Saturday during Scotiabank Hockey Tonight that tells the stories of the people and places that shape the game of hockey. Always committed to giving viewers the inside story, fans call follow him throughout the regular season and playoffs on Twitter.
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