Nail Yakupov, the Edmonton Oilers’ leading goal-scorer last season, was a healthy scratch for their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night. He’ll be one again as they head to D.C. to face the Washington Capitals on Monday night.
Why? Because he’s not playing the kind of game Coach Dallas Eakins is demanding from his young players. And because Eakins knows the best way to get that message across to his players is to scratch Nail Yakupov.
Yak wasn’t exactly feeling his first healthy scratch in the NHL, as he told the Edmonton Journal he’s still going to play his brand of hockey:
“I’m going to play my game,” he said. “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 said that Yakupov wasn’t scoring, and was letting that frustration poison the rest of his game, calling it a reset button. From the Journal:
“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.”
All of this sounds incredibly reasonable. As does the idea that although Yakupov is playing on the third line, “I have four wingers ahead of you right now who are playing better. Your job is to take one of them out," said Eakins.
Thing is, there’s a bit of, shall we say, “entitlement” expected from the Yakupov camp. Like from his father:
— Igor Eronko (@IgorEronko) October 14, 2013
ESPN’s Craig Custance got Yakupov’s agent, Professor Igor Larionov, to shoot down any KHL option for Yakupov. “Not even a single thought to go to the KHL at this moment. Not even a single one,” he said.
You know. “At this moment.”
This is a power struggle, youth v experience, old v young, and it will end with Yakupov playing more of a team game and working within a team structure.
How do I know this? History. History tells us that if the inmates are running the show you don't have much. Dallas Eakins is no doubt fighting a lot of headstrong youth these days, but that's his job and he can't and won't back down.
Play the system. Do the job. Nail Yakupov won't win this battle, but he'll come out the other side a better man.
Yakupov still has some growing to do as a player. So does Eakins as an NHL coach, which is why scratching Yakupov is a genius move.
He’s not Eberle, Hall or Nugent-Hopkins. He’s not a Canadian darling. He’s a brash young Russian star that Eakins can easily burn at the stake without catching hell from the media. It's assumed he has rough edges, and it's assumed that Eakins is doing the right thing for his game and his attitude.
The worst that happens: Eakins makes his point to the rest of the team but it’s lost on Yakupov; best case, he accomplishes the former and Yakupov becomes a great player with or without the puck.