Allow me to tell you a story. It’s about an offensively gifted player with the ability to score the most beautiful goals, the type of player who brings fans first to the ticket window and then to their feet. This talented young player, however, has a hole in his game. While he can dazzle and put pucks in the net, he is inefficient in his own zone. He’s not good defensively. It’s affecting other aspects of the game. The team is unhappy. The player is unhappy. Things have become so broken between player and team, that a potential trade is looming.
That player is, very obviously, Steve Yzerman.
In a well-known story in the annals of hockey, Yzerman was a consistent 100-point scorer with the Detroit Red Wings but played the game as if he were allergic to backchecking. Then Scotty Bowman arrived on the scene in 1993, asked his captain to work hard at both ends of the ice, and Stanley Cups rained down from the Detroit skies as Yzerman’s sacrifice and leadership brought joy to the men, women and children of Michigan.
What is sometimes forgotten is the Bowman/Yzerman relationship didn’t begin so swimmingly and got to the point rather quickly where Yzerman was within a breath of being traded to the Ottawa Senators. It seems unfathomable now, but one of the game’s best all-round players was nearly shipped out of town because he was a terrible defensive forward.
That brings us to, very obviously, Nail Yakupov.
It’s easy to launch into a mouth-foaming tirade about how Yzerman is pure Canadian handsomeness and ethereal light and should never be compared to Yakupov, a lazy youngster from the cold heartless land of communism and hate, but just give it a minute. Yzerman was established as an offensive maestro when Bowman rolled into town and Yakupov is a mere should-have-been Calder winner in a shortened season, but the bottom line is both had work to do defensively in their coaches’ eyes.
Yakupov turned 20 in October and is now facing the blowback from a horrendous start to his second (but first full) NHL campaign; Yzerman was 28 when Bowman was hired and had a decade’s worth of bad habits, which were ignored under the previous regime in lieu of his offense, when Ottawa became a real possibility. The trade rumors in Yzerman’s case were generated by the team; Yakupov’s were generated by his well-meaning but ill-advised agent Igor Larionov, a former teammate of Yzerman. Yakupov was a No. 1 pick; Yzerman went fourth in 1983.
They aren’t exactly twins, but there are enough similarities there where we could learn something about not rushing to judgment about a player.
This current firestorm around Yakupov is the work of Larionov, who cried to ESPN’s Craig Custance about his client’s lack of ice time (non-paywall version here) and how a trade would be welcomed. Yakupov was forced to stand and face the firing squad about his agent’s comments and expressed his own frustration about diminishing ice time. Now Yakupov is getting hammered for answering honestly – in what his not his native language, by the way – about his frustration.
Dynamite move, Igor.
Let’s push everything you have just read into the background, like I hope you do with everything I write. Let’s focus on Yakupov the player at the moment.
Red Wings GM Ken Holland was quoted by Szymon Szemberg, the communications director of the IIHF, Tuesday at the GM meetings in Toronto.
Wisdom in Westin lobby. GM Holland: ‘NHL is not a place to build confidence, must be mature, ready to play. If not, league will eat you up.
— Szymon Szemberg (@Sz1909_Szemberg) November 12, 2013
That, however, is not the philosophy of most teams. If you’re the first overall pick, you’re going to play in the NHL right away. And if you’re going to play in the NHL right away, you’re going to go through growing pains no matter what. That’s the situation the Oilers are in now with Yakupov and it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone around the game. He’s a young player who needs to work on his defense and he’s surrounded by a lot of young players who need to work on their defense, and all this is happening with a new coach. It’s a recipe for problems.
Yakupov has played 66 NHL games. If you just started watching the NHL last season, let me make it clear that Yakupov has yet to play a full season’s worth of games. He has 19 goals and 35 points in his career. Adam Gretz over at SB Nation broke down how impressive Yakupov has been and compared him to other No. 1 overall picks through their first 65 games. Bottom line is: Yakupov has been good, but like any other young NHL player, he has holes in his game but the potential to get even better.
Dallas Eakins wants him to be a better overall player. It appears he wants to break him down and build him up. That takes time. It’s strange to me in 2013 that it isn’t universally understood that teaching the defensive side of the game to a young player can be an extended process. There’s nothing wrong with making Yakupov a healthy scratch if he’s pressing. Watching from above the rink can provide a much-needed mental break and a new perspective on what he needs to do without the puck.
Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning was healthy scratched and it worked out pretty decently. Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers has been healthy scratched and only time will tell how he does. When he was a Bruin, Phil Kessel was healthy scratched. The list goes on and on. The fact that Yakupov being a healthy scratch gets everyone all worked up reflects badly on both the media and the human race. It happens. It’s not a big deal. Stamkos, Kessel, Kreider and Yzerman never had to be good at defense in order to succeed at any level before the NHL. But they all learned (or are learning in Kreider’s case) and there’s no reason to believe Yakupov won’t learn as well.
All that being said, Yakupov hasn’t really been a train wreck defensively. The Oilers as a whole are a train wreck, but Yakupov is hardly the conductor. If the Oilers were the movie “Unstoppable,” Yakupov wouldn’t be that fat dumb guy who plays the fat dumb guy in everything he’s in. He’s more like Rosario Dawson, the person in the middle catching it from both sides who would like to hear ideas about how to stop the train from wrecking but isn’t exactly sure how to keep the locomotive on the tracks.
It’s best to think of Yakupov as a bike accident defensively. There are some bumps and bruises but no one should care if a couple of hippies collide in a bike lane.
That doesn’t mean Yakupov doesn’t need to listen to his coach and improve his two-way game. If enough hippies pile up in the bike lane over a long enough period of time, they’ll start spilling out into the road and clogging up traffic. That’s what Eakins and the Oilers are trying to avoid, so to speak.
Patience and a few deep breaths would behoove everyone in this situation. Let Yakupov develop. Let Eakins do his work with Yakupov. Let Larionov and Craig MacTavish recess into the background. And by “recess into the background” I mean “stop speaking to anyone with a microphone about Yakupov.” Let’s allow the process to unfold.
Who knows – maybe 10 years from now, we’ll have a great story about how the Oilers almost traded Yakupov the same way we have a great story about how the Red Wings almost traded Yzerman.
Here are some stray thoughts about hockey.
* So how are Sean Monahan and the Calgary Flames doing since the first nine games of the season? As terribly as you might imagine, unless you are Flames management. The Flames were 4-3-2 in their first nine games; they went 2-6-1 in their next nine games. Monahan posted a 6-3-9 line in his first nine games; he has gone 1-2-3 since and has just five shots on net in his past six games. He has zero shots on net in three of his past four games.
* Remember how terrible Martin Brodeur was to start the season? The question seemed to be was this the result of him being 41 years old or him missing extended time in the exhibition season and failing to receive regular work. It appears to be the latter. Through his first four games, Brodeur was 0-2-2 with an .865 save percentage. An injury to Cory Schneider opened the door for Brodeur to play regularly, and he’s been nothing short of brilliant. He is 5-1-0 with two shutouts in his past six games with his one loss coming in a game where he stopped 20 of 21 shots and lost 1-0. His save percentage in those six games is .956; his even-strength save percentage over that stretch is .956. His shutout streak of 192:26 was the second-longest of his career, when he didn’t allow a goal for 215:07 in 1997. Not bad for a guy who was being mocked last week for saying he may welcome a trade to a contender at the deadline.
* An update to Ryan Miller’s unbelievable stat line this season: He is now at 3.28/.916. Here’s a list of all goalies to post a GAA as high as 3.20 with a save percentage of at least .916: Frederic Cassivi! He doesn’t deserve the Vezina or Hart, but we should all throw money into a hat and get Miller something.
* Of all the times to fire Darcy Regier, now seems like an odd one. If there’s one thing he can do, it’s make tank trades. He got a first-round pick for Paul Gaustad. He got a pair of second-round picks for Robyn Regehr. He got Johan Larsson, Matt Hacket a first- and second-round pick for Jason Pominville. This year, he got Matt Moulson, a first- and second-round pick for Thomas Vanek. That’s some pretty good tank trading.
How did you come to work for the NHL, and did you enjoy your time there? I’m a journalism student and writing for NHL.com (or any other hockey publication of that matter) would be my dream job. Am I stupid for thinking this? Is it hard to break into the field, or should I just change my major and re-evaulte my life completely? I’ll hang up and listen.
I’ll field these questions in order.
1. I was an editor at the Herald News, a tiny paper based in West Paterson, NJ. I did virtually no writing there. Dan Rosen, who had been at the NHL for about six months, told me NHL.com was looking for editors. I applied, got hired. After a little while, I did a conference call during the 2009 playoffs. Then another. Then another. Next thing I knew, I was at Cup Final games in Detroit. The following season, I was basically writing full time and covering the Rangers. But before all that, I wrote just about every day on a personal blog for about 4-5 years. This is a dumb business and I really have no business being where I am now. I did enjoy my time there.
2. You are not stupid. Well, maybe you are. I don’t know you. You could be extremely dumb. If you love writing and hockey, you should go for it. The extremely dumb are everywhere, and hockey writing does not exclude you from having success within the field. My advice to you would be to write as much as you can, be it for a school newspaper, yourself on a personal blog, on a piece of paper, whatever. Writing is like any other skill where it needs to be done regularly for you to improve. If you start writing semi-regularly like I’ve been doing the past six months, your skill done be dip and ain’t dorp.
3. My advice is get your foot in the door anywhere, even at that place history books tell me are newspapers. If you want to cover hockey, get yourself a seat on press row any way you can. If you can’t do that, again, write about it on your own. This is a really weird business. I know people who are very talented and hard working and are in lesser positions than people in the industry with less talent and a worse work ethic. If you’re OK with working in a field like that and don’t have a propensity for being bitter, go for it. Just make sure you love it.
ALSO: There is no one single path to success or where you want to be, despite what a blowhard newspaper person with an extremely high opinion of himself may tell you. You can break news, not break news, work for 15 years, work for five years, and maybe you will then get where you want to be. No one takes the same path. Each path is like a snowflake, in that it is unique and gross if you touch it with your tongue. Roll with the punches and be ready to figure it out as you go along. And if you hate it, leave, because no one wants to read sports writing from a miserable person who hates sports, writing, or sports writing.
(E-mail me questions for next week’s Bag Skate by e-mailing me questions to the e-mail address dave111177 at gmail dot com with questions)