Sitting in the middle of a bench for most of the game is never a comfortable position for a hockey player. But that is where an antsy Nail Yakupov finds himself these days.
All eyes were on the 20-year-old Edmonton Oilers forward on Wednesday evening after a couple days of controversy surrounding Yakupov
. First, his agent, the legendary Igor Larionov, remarked that his client was open to a trade. Then, Yakuopov complained about his lack of ice time in recent games and gave a 'Put Me in Coach' sort of speech.
Even though, he's averaging slightly more ice time than he did in his rookie season last year (15:280to 14:33), the past few weeks have not been kind to the right wing. He's been a healthy scratch for a couple of games. He has seen his ice time in the past six games dwindle from 15:06 to 12:47 to 11:08 to 10:46 to 10:54.
In the Oilers' 3-0 loss to the Dallas Stars
at home on Wednesday, with Larionov in attendance, Yakupov played primarily on a line with veteran Ryan Smyth and Marc Arcobello and saw 13:14 of ice time against the Stars.
He wasn't that noticeable against Dallas, except for an extra-long 1:45 shift at the end of the second period. You could tell he was focused on the defensive end. That's the main concern of Edmonton head coach Dallas Eakins. That has been the message to his young player.
"I don't feel any differently about Nail," Eakins said after the morning skate. "Climbing a mountain, he obviously hit a valley yesterday with having to come out and answer questions and make statements. I think it's pure frustration of a player and something he'll learn negatives or positives to take from it. We'll see how Nail's going. That's how it always goes with our team. Every guy earns their ice time. My expectations for him are that, between his agent's comments and his comments yesterday, my concern for him is all eyes are on him now and that can be a burden sometimes.
"I think he's up to the challenge of all eyes on him. We'll monitor how he's going, how we do every night. I expect him to come out and play hard. He always has passion in his game. He's just still learning the game and it'll depend on the score of the game and so many different things on how much ice time he gets. But I expect him to come out flying."Not going anywhere
Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish has been annoyed by this flap. It's a distraction his struggling club does not need as the season approaches the first quarter. He has preached calm and patience. He's stated that Yakupov, selected first overall in 2012, isn't going anywhere.
Yakupov isn't the first overall pick to go through growing pains. Head coach Pat Burns made life difficult for Joe Thornton in his rookie year with the Boston Bruins. He was a healthy scratch several times, played mainly on the fourth line and averaged only 8:05 of ice time in the entire season. Steven Stamkos also began his NHL career slowly.
Yakupov has 19 goals and 35 points in his first 66 NHL games, which isn't bad. But he has scored only twice and assisted on two others this season and has a league-worst plus-minus rating of minus-15.
It's easy to look around and see that Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Ryan Murray, chosen second overall in 2012 and whom some believe the Oilers needed more than another forward like Yakupov, has two goals to match Yakupov this year.
You can see the contributions the third overall selection, Alex Galchenyuk, has made with the Montreal Canadiens. Yakupov's former junior teammate in Sarnia is off to a sound start with three goals and 14 points in 19 games this fall.
"We have to do something because I don't see any trust to me now because I played lower and lower minutes," Yakupov said on Tuesday. "I just want to help my team win every game, but I haven't had much chance to do that."
Eakins has had several one-on-one talks with Yakupov. After his strong words on Tuesday, Oilers captain Andrew Ference sat down for a chat with the youngster.
It will be interesting to see what transpires with this situation. There was effort in his game on Wednesday, but he simply wasn't that noticeable.
Yet, all eyes were on him and will continue to be as the season progresses.
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