It took a while, but Nail Yakupov seems to have figured out life as an Edmonton Oiler.
And what’s more, he wants to keep it going.
The oft-maligned winger, who Edmonton made the first overall selection at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, spent the first three years of his career battling expectations, healthy scratches and perceptions that maybe, just maybe, he didn’t want to be there.
This week, Yakupov — a pending RFA — put those latter concerns to rest.
“I’m still pretty young and I hope I’m going to be in this league for a long time. I want to play for the Edmonton Oilers,” Yakupov said, per the Edmonton Sun. “I want to work hard, especially for the guys who trust me and gave me support — MacT and Nelly — and we have a good group of players on the team.”
“MacT and Nelly” are, of course, Oilers GM Craig MacTavish and head coach Todd Nelson, who have played a significant role in Yakupov’s recent upswing, which has seen the 21-year-old — yes, Yakupov is still only 21 — score nine points in his last 13 games.
MacTavish went out midway through the season and acquired Derek Roy, who has centered Yakupov since joining the Oilers and proven to be the ideal veteran, playmaking fit (which is something of a surprise, given most had toe-tagged Roy after failed stints in Vancouver, St. Louis and Nashville.)
Nelson, meanwhile, rewarded Yakupov with a significant uptick in ice time, something that was an issue under previous head coach Dallas Eakins, and Yakupov seems to finally have faith in a head coach — his third in three years, it should be pointed out.
“He’s helped me a lot,” Yakupov said of Nelson. “I think he’s the guy who helped me the most.”
All of these good vibes bode well for Yakupov’s future in Edmonton, which will soon be a topic of discussion. He’s in the last of his three-year entry-level deal and, barring some dramatic turn of events, should be back with the Oilers next season.
But that said, the Yakupov camp isn’t ready to start talking figures.
“The season is getting into the final swing and there is no time to change the focus on contract talks,” Yakupov’s agent, Igor Larionov, told PHT via email this week. “Nail is playing great hockey for a while now and he doesn’t need any distraction at this moment.”
The strategy make sense, as Yakupov still needs to show how far removed he is from the “old” Yakupov. But make no mistake: Edmonton is happy, Yakupov is happy and it sure sounds like both sides are ready to explore the future together.
“We’ve gone this far,” MacTavish said. “We all have to see the end now.”