Nail Yakupov wants to play more. Dallas Eakins, the Edmonton winger’s coach, does not agree.
And so the sad-sack Oilers have a situation that is entirely of their own doing. The team is in the dumps. Arguably their most talented offensive player — scouts compared Yakupov with Hall of Famer Pavel Bure — is angry. Nobody, from the player to coach to captain Andrew Ference to general manager Craig MacTavish, has uncovered any answers to fix the first thing around the team.
Yakupov is not at fault. Yakupov is 20 years old. For most young, wealthy, and entitled men, maturity arrives in following years — if at all.
The blame belongs to the Oilers. They are one of the primary log-throwers onto a fire that’s burning organizations as well as players. The Oilers are leading the charge toward rushing young players into the meanest league in the sport.
Yakupov was Edmonton’s third straight No. 1 pick. All three — Yakupov in 2012, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011, Taylor Hall in 2010 — were granted immediate varsity spots. Their bosses spent seemingly little time reflecting on how the players would handle the boys-to-men transition.
For a floundering team, no less.
The Oilers are not alone. Since the 2004-05 season lost to the lockout, teams have been quicker to turn high picks into big-league players. In the nine seasons following the lockout, 36 first-round picks have made their respective NHL rosters in the season after being drafted. Ex-Bruins Tyler Seguin (2010) and Phil Kessel (2006) are two of them. Since 2007, when Chicago took Patrick Kane No. 1, every first overall pick has made the NHL the next season (Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov, and Nathan MacKinnon).
There are eight from the 2013 draft alone: MacKinnon (Colorado), Aleksander Barkov (Florida), Seth Jones (Nashville), Elias Lindholm (Carolina), Sean Monahan (Calgary), Rasmus Ristolainen (Buffalo), Valeri Nichushkin (Dallas), and Nikita Zadorov (Buffalo). All eight are either 18 or 19 years old.
In contrast, only 16 first-round picks from the nine seasons preceding the 2004-05 lockout made their NHL clubs in the season after they were picked.
The post-lockout landscape has changed. Picks are in the three-year, entry-level system. Entry-level players earn a maximum of $925,000 per season through 2022. Because of the salary cap, players with average annual values less than $1 million balance out the high-ticket stars.
Also, the NHL’s feeder leagues — CHL, NCAA, European junior leagues, USHL — improve every year. More of today’s youngsters are one-sport players from early ages.
But the league’s culture of shuttling teenagers into the NHL too often ignores the mental challenge of playing against men. Yakupov, whether in the OHL or KHL, never played against opponents who regularly turn mistakes into goals. Even for an 18- or 19-year-old puck prodigy, one season of post-draft, pre-NHL development can define his professional career.
Consider Milan Lucic. On June 24, 2006, the Bruins drafted the left wing in the second round. Earlier that month, Lucic turned 18.
Lucic was coming off his first full season in the WHL. In 62 games, Lucic scored nine goals with 10 assists while logging 149 penalty minutes for Vancouver.
Physically, Lucic might have been ready for the jump. But both Lucic and the Bruins acknowledged another junior season would serve both parties best.
In 2006-07, the Bruins failed to qualify for the playoffs. That year, Lucic played in Vancouver. He would not return.
Lucic made the Bruins as a 19-year-old in 2007. Lucic won a Stanley Cup in 2011. Lucic roared through the playoffs last year, nearly helping the Bruins to a second Cup in three years. Lucic is now the league’s premier power forward.
But even though Lucic has been an NHLer for seven years, the left wing considers his final junior season his most important as a player.
“Probably the biggest one,” Lucic said. “Without that year, I don’t know if I would have the confidence to be the type of player I am today.”
Had Lucic been rushed a year early, he wouldn’t have won with his junior teammates. Lucic wouldn’t have been as brash in fighting for a position. Lucic probably would have struggled on a losing team. He might have even been sent back to junior, which would have prompted a flurry of self-doubt, much like Yakupov is experiencing now. Through 19 games, Yakupov has three goals and two assists while averaging 15:17 of ice time per appearance. Eakins doesn’t know what Yakupov will deliver from shift to shift.
Yet Yakupov thinks he’s the one being dumped on.
“I don’t want to play nine or five minutes,” Yakupov told Edmonton reporters. “I think I can play more. I’m 20 years old, and that’s a pretty important year for me. Sometimes I’m just sitting too much and watching hockey from the bench. I just want to help. I just want to play. I just want to have fun.”
The Oilers will not make the playoffs. Yakupov should have stayed in junior last year, and started this season in Oklahoma City, Edmonton’s AHL affiliate. It would have been the normal development path.
But they can’t demote Yakupov now. An assignment would further erode Yakupov’s confidence. Yakupov must learn on the job. That’s not easy for any 20-year-old, especially one with a mouth as big as his head.
More seasoning was preferred taste
Like Yakupov, Jack Johnson was considered a can’t-miss kid. In his draft year, Johnson played for the National Team Development Program’s Under-18 club. Sidney Crosby was guaranteed to be the first pick in 2005.
But Johnson had a good idea his name would be called shortly after Crosby’s. The teenage defenseman was picked third overall. It’s considered gospel that defensemen require more time to develop than forwards. But it wouldn’t have been a stretch for Johnson to transition from the NTDP to the NHL.
But Johnson wasn’t ready. The following fall, Johnson started his freshman season at Michigan. After his first college year, Johnson could have turned pro and played for Manchester, the Kings’ farm club. But the 19-year-old Johnson thought a second season of college hockey would be his best stage for development.
“I was an 18-year-old kid,” Johnson said. “I was drafted by a really good team. I knew I wasn’t going to crack the big team. I wasn’t ready to pass up the opportunity to play for a major university to play in the minors.”
Johnson signed with the Kings after his sophomore season. Johnson never played in the AHL. He is now an alternate captain for the Blue Jackets. Johnson will most likely play for Team USA in the 2014 Olympics.
“The difference between an 18-year-old and a 20-year-old is big,” Johnson said. “Maturity-wise and physically, I grew a lot. I think it came to a point where I was athletically ready. Emotionally, I didn’t want to leave because I was having such a good time. But it just felt like it was the right step. I also had my sights set on trying to play in the 2010 Olympics. I knew if I was going to have a shot at it, I had to take the jump.”
Sabres’ interim coach is quite able
The odds are slim that Ted Nolan will still be behind the Buffalo bench next season. The interim Sabres coach, who replaced Ron Rolston on Wednesday, will most likely hand over the keys at the end of 2013-14, if not earlier.
New president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine’s first order of business is to land general manager Darcy Regier’s replacement. Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning is on a short list of candidates. Benning worked in Buffalo’s front office for 12 seasons before being hired by the Bruins in 2006. Pittsburgh assistant GM Jason Botterill, who played briefly for the Sabres, is also in the mix.
The next GM will then hire his coach. If Benning lands the job, he might consider Bruins assistant Doug Houda, who has Buffalo ties. Former Bruins assistant Craig Ramsay, another ex-Sabre, would be another possibility.
Short-term, however, Nolan is the best fit for the job. Nolan coached in Buffalo for two seasons. LaFontaine, one of the most skilled forwards of his generation, played for Nolan. So did Michael Peca, Matthew Barnaby, Brad May, and Rob Ray — players who were as abrasive as LaFontaine was skilled. Nolan understands what Buffalo fans like to see.
“We’re in the entertainment business,” Nolan said during his introductory press conference. “We have to entertain people. Players get paid pretty well nowadays.
“What we have to do immediately is to get these guys to compete and work. The bottom line is we have to make sure we compete at a certain level, so that when fans leave here, they don’t feel cheated.”
Nolan’s junior experience will also help. In 2005-06, Nolan coached Moncton in the QMJHL. Nolan’s teenage charges included Brad Marchand, Keith Yandle, and Andrew MacDonald. The Sabres have four players under 20: Rasmus Ristolainen, NikitaZadorov, Zemgus Girgensons, and Mikhail Grigorenko.
“You don’t want to put a kid in a position of failure,” Nolan said. “You have to get them to feel good about themselves. If you put them against big-time guys too soon, they get burned. It hurts your confidence.”
Assuming the Sabres let Nolan go, the rest of the season will be his audition for his next job. So will his Olympic duties with Latvia. The Sabres have given Nolan permission to continue his job as Latvia’s coach in Sochi. The Latvians are serious underdogs. In that way, they have the perfect coach.
A low-risk investment
Dion Phaneuf is Toronto’s captain. He is the Leafs’ No. 1 defenseman. He is 28 years old. Through 19 games, Phaneuf was averaging 24:23 of ice time per appearance. Such defensemen are hard to find and even harder to acquire. So for those reasons, the Leafs will probably re-sign Phaneuf, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency at year’s end. Phaneuf will most likely receive a seven-year extension, despite his shortcomings. Phaneuf is good for at least several high-risk plays per game, usually involving an ill-advised decision to throw a big hit. Phaneuf can rattle teeth and intimidate opponents. But Phaneuf can also put himself in a bad spot if he misses. Phaneuf might become a safer and more dependable defenseman with age. Once Phaneuf can’t skate out of trouble, he won’t put himself into bad spots. The Leafs need Phaneuf where he belongs, which is in at the circles, in front of the net, and in the corners.
On Thursday, Anaheim activated Viktor Fasth from his AHL conditioning stint. At the same time, the Ducks assigned Frederik Andersen to Norfolk. During his brief NHL audition, Andersen proved his AHL apprenticeship doesn’t have to be much longer. The 24-year-old went 6-1-0 with a 1.66 GAA and .943 save percentage while sharing the net with Jonas Hiller. Andersen won his first six career starts, the first goalie to turn the trick since Toronto’s Damian Rhodes posted six straight W’s between March 22, 1991, and Dec. 2, 1993. Andersen’s promotion, Fasth’s good health, and the career trajectory of puckstopping prospect John Gibson point to Anaheim acquiring assets for Hiller, who will reach UFA status at the end of the season. Possible landing spots for Hiller include the Islanders and Nashville.
The Blues laid an all-around whipping on the Avalanche on Thursday. Not only did St. Louis score a 7-3 win, but the Blues also flexed their muscles. Ex-Bruin Vladimir Sobotka dusted off Matt Duchene. Ryan Reaves beat up Cody McLeod. Chris Stewart dispatched Cory Sarich. St. Louis’s mix of skill, discipline, and surliness makes it one of the NHL’s toughest teams to play. The Colorado-St. Louis rematch is on Nov. 27 in Denver, the day before Thanksgiving. It’s a good bet that Patrick Bordeleau, the Avalanche’s tough guy, will prep his fists for action.
Reader Peter Atkinson showed a good eye when noting the absence, several weeks ago, of Tom Barrasso’s name among the elite of New England’s schoolboy talent. After starring at Acton-Boxborough High, Barrasso jumped directly to the NHL with Buffalo in 1983-84. As a rookie, Barrasso won both the Calder and Vezina trophies. Barrasso won back-to-back rings with Pittsburgh in 1991-92. It’s unlikely that any goalie will transition directly from public high school into the NHL again, to say nothing of winning two major trophies as a rookie.
The Blue Jackets expect Nathan Horton to make his Columbus debut in one month. Horton has yet to play this season while recovering from shoulder surgery. The Jackets might be out of the playoff chase by the time Horton returns. Considering the Jackets have Horton under contract for six more seasons, they are sure to monitor the ex-Bruin’s return closely . . . Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick could be out for a month because of a groin strain. The former UMass-Amherst standout remains Team USA’s ace puckstopper. But Quick won’t have much time to regain his pre-Olympic rhythm prior to his return. This could be Ryan Miller’s opening to lock down the starting job . . . Congratulations to Bruins penalty timekeeper Al Ruelle Jr., who is celebrating his 25th year of rinkside employment. Here’s to many more years, especially if Ruelle puts up more five-minute majors on his time sheet . . . If Steven Stamkos (broken right leg) is unable to suit up for the Olympics, Canada’s management group might consider Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Joffrey Lupul, and Bryan Little as replacements. They are right-shot forwards who could replicate some of Stamkos’s offensive firepower . . . The Panthers made the right move last Sunday when they assigned young goalie Jacob Markstrom to San Antonio. Neither Markstrom nor the Panthers were benefiting from seeing opponents rip up the 23-year-old (1-5-3, 3.36 GAA, .877 save percentage). Better for Tim Thomas and Scott Clemmensen to take the heat while allowing Markstrom to breathe easier in the AHL . . . Then again, Florida assigned former Boston University defenseman Ryan Whitney to San Antonio on Monday. The Panthers replaced Whitney with ex-Boston College defenseman Mike Mottau. Never send a BC guy to do a BU man’s job.