Craig MacTavish hasn’t been the most well-received general manager in the NHL this season, that’s for sure.
The criticisms have come from far and wide, ranging from his inability to pick a good head coach for the franchise (the Edmonton Oilers have rotated through head coaches at a nearly coach-per-season clip) to his ill-advised drafting, development, roster combinations, and asset management. If there’s something wrong with the Edmonton Oilers, there’s a good chance that Craig MacTavish has already been blamed for it.
The biggest critism so far, though, has been his seeming lack of attunement to what’s really ailing his franchise. During the GM address given after the 2015 trade deadline passed, he spoke of a ‘winning team’ and an on-ice product that looked like they’d shape up into a dynasty. He didn’t say how, but he promised that the Edmonton Oilers would become an empire once again — yet the decade of horrific on-ice production has left the fanbase jaded and bitter, demanding more than just a blanket promise. He claimed they would be winners, cried the fans, yet gave them no concrete plan for how he was going to make that happen.
As out of touch as he’s seemed, though, there is one thing he can’t ignore — and that’s been Nail Yakupov‘s resurgence alongside veteran center Derek Roy.
Dealt to the Edmonton Oilers outright for center Mark Arcobello mid-way through the season, Roy was a seemingly lateral move for the Alberta team; if anything, his seniority over the 26-year-old Arcobello made it likely the team had dealt away a few extra years of mid-line production just for an established name.
Since arriving in Edmonton, though, Derek Roy has shown that he’s here to do something many forget needs to be done — boost the confidence of a lagging, under-mentored Nail Yakupov.
Yakupov was the third of three consecutive first overall picks taken by the Oilers in recent seasons, and he was maybe the most ill-served of the trio. While Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins came in to a team with at least a modicum of veteran guidance, Yakupov’s on-ice mentors were guys barely five years his senior; in addition to still growing accustomed to North American hockey (Yakupov had only spent two seasons in the OHL prior to his draft year, then spent the first half of his lockout-shortened rookie season playing back in his hometown of Nizhnekamsk, Russia), Yakupov was stuck suffering through the growing pains every young hockey player endures with a language barrier and players barely more mature than himself as his role models. Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and Sam Gagner were — for better or worse — the closest things he had to veteran leadership.
Yes, the team has some older players. Boyd Gordon, 31, has been on the team for two of Yakupov’s three seasons — and captain Andrew Ference isn’t one of the young guns, either. When it came to guys he skated on a line with, though, Yakupov was given little consistency and even less veteran guidance.
It should come as less of a surprise than we’re taking it to be, then, that Roy’s arrival in Edmonton has coincided with a burst of production from the Russian sniper.
Over seventy games, Yakupov now has twelve goals and sixteen assists — surpassing his production from last season, and only growing more confident with the passing days. Since his last eleven-game goalless stretch, Yakupov hasn’t let more than six games pass without putting the puck to the back of the net at least once per game — and that’s not counting the assists he’s recorded in the slight stretches without tallies of his own. Six of his twelve goals have come since Valentine’s Day alone — and he’s managed to get at least one point per game in all but four of the contests he’s played since February 7th.
Craig MacTavish has noticed this.
His address to the media (transcribed via Twitter by Allison Currie) on Friday morning had some typical ‘MacT’ blunders. He suggested that people are mixed on defenseman Nikita Nikitin (who is largely agreed to be one of the most overpaid and underproducing veteran blue liners in the NHL), but didn’t mention any plans to solidify the blue line — but he also owned up to his own misgivings.
Had he said that he’d never doubted Yakupov’s ability to become an offensive powerhouse, few would have believed him. Instead, though, he owned up to his near-hopeless view of the young forward:
"I almost gave up hope" MacT on Yakupov
— Allison Currie (@AlleyDalley) March 20, 2015
Not easy for an NHL GM to say.
He also gave plenty of credit to Derek Roy in addition to interim head coach Todd Nelson, who took over for former head coach Dallas Eakins when he was dismissed in December. For Edmonton, that’s a big step — noticing that the veteran presence had such a big impact on a player could mean the team may take strides to improve their young player development. After all, Yakupov isn’t the only young star on the Oilers people wish would give them more — winger Taylor Hall still acts like an OHL-level playmaker, and defenseman Justin Schultz has yet to develop a true defensive presence for the franchise that paid him big money straight out of the NCAA.
Although MacTavish’s praise for Yakupov stopped there, though, it’s worth looking at what the Oilers could get out of him moving forward.
In addition to finally finding his voice on the ice, Nail Yakupov has come into his own in the Edmonton community. He’s not the first NHL star to be caught doing little things to improve his community, but he’s one of the youngest — very few young, highly-touted NHL players are reported for helping out those in need when the cameras aren’t looking. Yes, you see guys building parks, and helping out at charity events — but there’s a rather small list of NHL players who get caught making a difference when no one is sponsoring them to do so.
Seeing this out of Yakupov at a time when he’s really beginning to thrive in the NHL could be a sign that he’s the leader that team has been desperately searching for to take over when Andrew Ference retires — let’s just hope MacTavish notices that, as well.