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Edmonton Oilers: The high cost of the Nail Yakupov scratch


Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The high cost of the Nail Yakupov scratch

There’s a time bomb ticking in the locker room for the Edmonton Oilers, and its name is Nail Yakupov. Regardless of how you cut it, the situation that has developed in Edmonton between young star and new coach is volatile and has the potential to cost the franchise more than just a few games in the standings.

Forget the white noise that is the KHL. The Kontinental Hockey League isn’t in the position to steal Yakupov, and Yakupov isn’t in the position to bolt. The KHL isn’t why this developing situation is dangerous.

What is dangerous is Edmonton coach Dallas Eakins trying to make a statement by benching Yakupov. He can sing all the songs he wants about wanting to see the ultra-skilled winger play a more complete game, but that’s nonsense. This is the same teenager that lead the Oilers in goal scoring in his rookie season and finished fourth in points.

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As a longtime coach, he should know that you can’t snap your fingers and have a player magically develop two-way prowess. That skill takes years to develop. Not four games.

Yakupov comes out of the gate cold and the solution is to scratch him? It’s tough to think of an instance where this approach actually worked, let alone with a prideful and competitive individual like Yakupov. Apparently the knock on him early in this season is that he’s wanted to score so badly that the rest of his game has gone south. From the Montreal Gazette:

The kids’ passion is to score and he was just going to take it all on himself to do that. I don’t care how good you are, you can’t produce by yourself in this league. You have to use your linemates, so it was more of a reset button for him. He can come in fresh with a new perspective.

He’s young and he has so much to learn about the proper way to play the game and once he grasps that, he is going to be dangerous when he steps on the ice. The thing about these guys who have that special gift of being able to put the puck in the net, is that once it starts not going in for them in the first couple of games, it can snowball quickly the other way where they maybe start cheating for offence then maybe looking away from the defensive part of the game.

With Edmonton already sinking down the standings following lackluster efforts from throughout the lineup, you bench the guy that wants to score so bad that is shows in his body language and in all three zones? That’s the guy you give a timeout to? Absolutely asinine. If Yakupov had gone 14 games without a goal, fine, give him a seat in the press box.

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The entire team has struggled early though, and creating a divorce between coaching staff and player isn’t going to fix anything. As it turns out, the teenager wasn’t too happy about watching Edmonton’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, and it isn’t likely his words in the press sat well with Eakins. Yakupov had this to say about the benching, according to the Montreal Gazette:

I wasn’t happy about it last night. You can say a million words about getting better but coach says I’m not playing, so I’m not playing.

I’m not happy about it. I just want to play every game. I’m going to play my game. I’m not going to change but maybe play better without the puck, or forecheck more, but I love playing with the puck. I really don’t like skating all the time, and forechecking, and hitting somebody every shift. I don’t think it’s my game.

Eakins defended the move, claiming that he wanted to give Yakupov a “reset button” after starting off rough. Well if that’s the case, then why is he watching from the press box once again as the Oilers take on the Washington Capitals tonight? It couldn’t possibly be the comments that the kid made to the press during practice this morning, could it?

Are we to that point already in Edmonton? That a new coach needs to take his frustrations out on the 20 year-old Yakupov?

If the coach didn’t like the way the player was approaching the game, there was a way to approach the first four games as a learning experience. Instead, Eakins treated Yakupov like a child and sent him to timeout instead of micromanaging through games and weeks as player, coach and team worked to get through an early slump.

Remember what coaching great Scotty Bowman did with Sergei Fedorov when he didn’t feel he was playing good defense? He put him on the blue line, and the result was the development of one of the best two-way players ever. That’s how you teach. That’s what a great coach does. Eakins clearly didn’t get that memo.

Yakupov shouldn’t get special treatment, but adversity builds strength in the locker room over time. Right now the Oilers are biking uphill and the No. 1 pick from a year ago is being forced to watch from the sidelines.

That might fire him up in the short term, but at what cost?

It would be one thing if the Oilers came out looking like unleashed behemoths in light of the benching, but they didn’t against Toronto. They still lost. And therein lies the biggest risk of all for Eakins. If the Oilers keep losing and if this little ploy doesn’t work, he’ll have estranged his most electric and dangerous forward for no reason whatsoever.

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