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Nail Yakupov - Expectations, Disappointment, and a Sliver of Hope

Is Nail Yakupov poised to take a step forward or is it time to accept that he is what he is?

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Over the weekend, I was reading through the comments in Nail Yakupov's Top 25 profile, and I was feeling awfully sympathetic to Ryan's perspective that we ought to be patient with this player. At the same time, the disappointment that people are expressing is also completely understandable. Ryan offered the following recap of the situation:

We rightly expect more from first overall picks so draft position matters to some extent, but not all drafts are the same and not all first overall picks are the same. Hall was obviously closer to NHL ready than Yakupov, RNH too. That doesn't excuse Yakupov for falling short of expectations but he shouldn't be compared to a player like Hall, or any other first overall pick, just because he was selected first overall. I think you need to look at the player and what was (reasonably) expected, and measure against that.

Most of this seems quite correct. Draft position is a useful proxy for scouting consensus, but every draft is different. I'm not so sure about the NHL-readiness question though. Hall wasn't so much more NHL-ready as he was better. Nugent-Hopkins seemed closer in terms of skill level, but people spoke about the physicality of the NHL as a concern for both Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov, and I don't remember Yakupov's defensive deficiencies being lamented in a way that would distinguish him from the others. A comparison of Kyle Woodlief's pre-draft comments about Yakupov and Nugent-Hopkins will be illustrative. Here's Woodlief on Yakupov:

Yakupov is the only true marquee talent in this draft, and his explosive speed and shot give him the highest offensive upside available. He's not big and might struggle initially to handle the physicality of the NHL over a grueling 82-game season, but he is aggressive and loves to throw the body, and is willing to stand up for himself.

No really significant concerns noted, and lots of positives, which is about what you'd expect. Now compare that to Woodlief's profile on Nugent-Hopkins:

Nugent-Hopkins has the highest offensive upside and is the most potent playmaker of the bunch. He'll struggle to handle the physicality of the NHL over a grueling 82-game season since his current walking around weight is a slightly build 163 pounds. But he is gritty and willing to battle in traffic and stand up for himself, so he'll eventually get there. One thing he has shown is a consistent ability to elevate his game at the biggest moments.

Very similar. I think we can say in hindsight that Nugent-Hopkins was more prepared for the NHL game, but I don't think that argument was being made in a significant way at the time either player was drafted (and considered the near-consensus first overall pick).

The rest of what Ryan said seems accurate. We ought to consider draft position as just one component of developing a reasonable expectation with other data serving a more important function, especially as we drift further and further away from Yakupov's draft season. The unfortunate thing is (and Ryan acknowledged this) Yakupov's performance is still wildly disappointing in that context. Consider Michael Parkatti's prediction for Yakupov's 2013-14 season:

We can also say that we have 95% confidence that his PPG rate will be between 0.52 and 1.07. Of course, if his TOI does not stack up to my projections, that confidence interval would change.

Michael had estimated that Yakupov would see 2.9 minutes per game on the power play and 13.9 minutes per game at even strength. He actually played 2.2 minutes on the power play and 12.1 minutes at evens, so the ice time projection did end up being aggressive, but that was at least in part because Yakupov wasn't producing, scoring just 0.38 points per game on the season.

Michael's response to Yakupov's poor showing in April of 2014 acknowledged the disappointment but remained hopeful:

I'd agree that Yakupov's on the clock at this point. Another sub-20 goal campaign next year will undoubtedly see him fall another spot or two in these rankings. All I'm saying is that you'd be foolish to bet on him having a similar season to this one next year.

And yet... it was another year with poor possession numbers, another year with less than half a point per game, another year with fewer than twenty goals, another year with less than sixteen minutes per game, and another year with a revolving door of quality for linemates. It was, in many respects, a similar season to 2013-14, and indeed, Yakupov has fallen three spots in our Top 25 rankings.

But Michael's optimism seemed reasonable every step of the way, at least to me. The talent Yakupov showed in junior is enormous, and most guys with enormous talent eventually succeed. Yakupov just hasn't seen his offense translate as well as it has for the top ten picks who made successful transitions to the NHL from the CHL immediately after being drafted:


The average here is 41% with everyone from Landeskog up and Yakupov down falling outside the first standard deviation. So less NHL offense than you'd reasonably expect based on his junior career and the scouts' assessment of his skills. More distressing is probably the fact that the list above didn't exactly see a lot of variation in their production in years four and five:


So is there hope? I think there's at least a little. Tyler Seguin is an outlier in this sample, but some of the things that resulted in Seguin's big move are also applicable to Yakupov. Neither player was given consistently strong linemates and neither guy played huge minutes (Seguin's time on ice jumped almost two and a half minutes after going to Dallas). With those things in place, Seguin's production saw a remarkable jump. It seems possible that Yakupov's will do the same given a similar opportunity. Let's hope it doesn't take a trade to make that happen.