What's faster than the speed of a Cannonball, capable of dominating entire teams, can leap rink boards in a single bound and enjoys scoring, but only when the puck is two feet off of the ice?
It's Nail Yakupov, #2 in our Top 25 Under 25 survey.
I'm the only member of the group to have Nail Yakupov ranked #1, it's only the second time since Taylor Hall has received a single 2nd-place vote. Jonathan Willis ranked Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 1st during our July panel, and now I've got Yakupov at the head of the class. Alan, Ben, Bruce, DB, Jonathan and Ryan all held firm with Yakupov at #3, and Scott and I each moved him up one slot in our overall lists.
Yakupov's ascendance to #1 on my list doesn't have as much to do with Yakupov's play thus far, though it has been impressive. I believe Yakupov and Hall are the true superstars in the organization - the two players capable of driving play on their own, capable of carrying lines and at times teams, on their own. I have them essentially equal in my eyes right now. Though Hall is the more powerful player, the more explosive player, I think Yakupov is far ahead of Hall in both passing and shooting ability. Both of them enjoy the battle and neither of them shy away from contact. Both of them are willing to play all three zones and both of them are willing to crash the net with abandon.
They're so similar, in fact, that I had them tied at #1 on the list for awhile before making up my mind to go with Yakupov. My reasoning is based on health. Taylor Hall has not demonstrated an ability to stay healthy as a professional. With Hall and Yakupov so close to each other in ability and potential, the dividing line comes down to the one skill that Hall does not possess - health. Yakupov may get hurt at some point in the season and then again next season. But as long as he's got health in his skillset, I think Yakupov is the superior choice on this list.
Yakupov was a superior player to Hopkins in Junior and was a superior player to Hall prior to his knee and head injuries in his draft year. But I don't think we need to go back to Juniors to talk about Yakupov's skill or ability - they've both been readily apparent in his time in the NHL.
The numbers look extremely uneven at first glance. He scored 5 goals in his first 8 games, but has just 1 in his last 18. He had 17 shots on goal in his first 8 games, but has just 22 shots in his last 18 games. He's been a solidly minus player thus far, and he's been repeatedly criticized by MSM members for turnover, but he's also played entire periods as the best player on either side of the ice.
But there are some positive signs. While his shot rate has been awful recently, so have his teammates. He began the season on the port side of Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky, but Ralph Krueger bounced him down the lineup to play right wing with both Ryan Smyth and Eric Belanger, the latter being a black hole of offense for his entire stay in Edmonton. It's not surprising that his offense crashed during that time. He's not been featured on the Oilers' power play even though he possesses the best shot on the team. But, he's 5th on the Oilers in relative Corsi, and sixth in raw Corsi. But more importantly, he's found running mates. In recent games, Yakupov is skating on the starboard side with Gagner and Magnus Paajarvi and (that line is driving play moreso than the Hall-less Hopkins-Eberle line.
So what do the Oilers have in Nail Yakupov? He's scoring at .5 points per game, even though he's playing with the least (or most depending on your point of view) offensive player in the lineup for long stretches. He doesn't have a feature role on the power play, but he's got positive signs in the possession game. He's shown flashes of brilliance. More importantly, he seems to be comfortable with his new linemates and he's looking like the Yakupov we saw early in the season.
Check out the complete Top 25 Under 25 List in our