Jason Gregor talked to Ralph Krueger and he’s got some of the answers posted in his pre-game piece on OilersNation. One of the issues Gregor brought up was Yakupov’s usage so far this year, both in the third period when the Oilers are leading and in overtime. I thought both answers were interesting and worth exploring a little bit. I’m going to start with the overtime question.
JG: What about in overtime when it’s 4-on-4?
RK: We just have a lot of confidence in our penalty shooting ability. We’ve had some troubles 4-on-4 during the season, so we did have him playing if you think back. And there were some 4-on-4 breakdowns that cost us games that were extremely painful, and so we’ve kind of gone with more experience there. Those are gut feelings, whether you have 8 guys, or whether you end up going with 6. And he just wasn’t in the top 6 mix the last game, but he could be the next one. There’s nothing wrong with Nail playing there, but there’s a defensive element there and a risk reward. I’ve been in situations before where you play three forwards and one defenceman and just go for it.
Gregor went on to add this:
Yakupov was on the ice for two OT losses, on February 04th and 06th. He did lose his man, Tanev, vs. the Canucks but he made no mistake on the Jagr game-winner.
I’ve got some sympathy for Yakupov on the loss to Vancouver, which came before the loss to Dallas. I’ll embed the video but I’m going to do a couple of quick pictures below that:
The Oilers are in a reasonably good position here – the puck’s on the wall and the Oilers are well positioned to defend if the Canucks get possession and try to come off the wall.
Unfortunately, Eberle does a bit of a fly-by and suddenly there are two Canucks and one Oiler fighting for possession on the boards.
If Krueger’s system in OT calls for this, I’d be stunned. Eberle’s in full-on beer league mode at this point, hoping that his teammate can win a 1v2 battle and then get the puck to him to send him away. Note that Yakupov’s still in a decent position supporting the puck – if the D does get the puck, Yakupov’s giving him an easier outlet pass than Eberle is.
Now the Canucks have won the puck down to a Sedin and there’s an odd-man situation developing on the other side of the ice in the Canucks’ favour.
Yakupov is clearly worried about the Canucks beating the Oilers defence to the front of the net with the puck and has started to drop down to try and close that off.
The pass is made back to the boards and it’s all gone pear shaped now.
All Yak can do is make an incredibly awkward looking shot block attempt – fortunately, he didn’t take a puck in the face – and the Canucks win. I’m not inclined to criticize Yak too much for this goal because, frankly, it did look like the Canucks were going to try and take the puck to the net there and the Oilers were not in a good position. The whole mess starts with Eberle’s fly-by/beer league move standing out in the neutral zone and Yak happened to be the guy who got caught on camera when the bil came due for that.
Let’s turn over to the Dallas game, two nights later. Again, I’ll embed it and then go through some pictures.
Yakupov is out with MPS. He’s chipped the puck off the glass here. In a 4v4 situation, without a lot of pressure (the Stars had just lost it attempting to enter the zone), you might like your guy to try and establish possession but I doubt that’s what irritated the coaches.
The puck goes down the ice. Here’s Yak, on the right side of the centre line. Note that he’s gliding.
He sort of makes a little push here with his right leg, kind of adjusting his direction.
There’s a little bit more of a stride in there but nothing approaching a full one, let alone multiple full strides.
The play circles back around and Yak’s back in glidechecking mode.
The Stars put it back across the ice and Yak glides back towards the Star with the puck. At this point you can actually hear someone, presumably on the Oilers’ bench, shout “Move your legs Yak, move your legs!”
As Yak closes in, the Stars move the puck and are now in an excellent position to come out of the defensive zone.
The Stars have now entered the Oilers’ zone pretty easily and taken a wrist shot that led to a rebound in the corner and a looming Ryan Whitney-Jaromir Jagr encounter that will end in tears. I really like this moment though because it kind of suggests that Yak’s the sort of guy who can learn from his mistakes. He’s actually pointing at the Stars defenceman there, as if to say “That’s my guy – I got him” – presumably, he learned from his error the previous night.
Even as Jagr dances past the remains of Whitney’s reputation, Yak’s still pointing. That defenceman is his man and he has got him.
I’m inclined to say that Yak’s more at fault for this than he was for the goal that Tanev scored. At the very least, he’s not doing what Krueger has talked a lot about wanting to do, which is pressure the opposition when they have the puck. As with Eberle and the Canucks, it kind of seemed like a beer league move to me, like the Oilers had a short bench and Yak was trying to manage his energy. Of course, the Oilers have 18 skaters and even beer league teams will pick you apart if you sit back and let them do it. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that Yakupov does have a bit of a tendency to be a glide skater when he doesn’t have the puck or see an immediate opportunity to get it – pressuring the opposition with speed when they’re in possession is something he’ll have to learn.
All of which is to say that I don’t really agree with Gregor when he says Yak was at fault on the Vancouver goal but not the Dallas goal; if anything, I kind of assign more blame to him on the Dallas goal than I do the Vancouver goal. As far as what Krueger thinks, Yakupov got right back out against Dallas after Vancouver; he hasn’t played a second of OT time since then.
As I mentioned, Gregor also asked Krueger about Yakupov’s diminished ice time late in games that the Oilers are leading:
JG: Are you trying to protect Yakupov late in games, or are you concerned about his defensive awareness?
RK: He has our confidence. He’s an 18 year old, he’s going to be playing in this role, probably very similar, for the rest of the year. Not For lack of ability or will, he’s very responsible without the puck now. He’s trying to play the team game all of the time. We’re happy with him, but he’s an 18 year old and down the stretch the hierarchy has it in a way that we have more experience in other positions and other players. When you’re reduced to six to nine forwards and you’re trying to close games up and take them either into overtime or finish them with a lead, he understands that it’s just not his time yet. It was no different when we went back a few years to the roles that Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle had to now being able to play in those minutes.
I’d be happier if Krueger said that he thought the players who he does play down the stretch in games that they Oilers are trying to close out are better than Yakupov, although I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t agree with him. Hearing that they play because they’re more experienced is a bit disheartening but, who knows, it’s one word and it’s not really fair to parse the language that a guy like Krueger uses in an informal interview.
That being said, it’s kind of interesting to look at how Krueger has used Yakupov, if you look at the games that the Oilers were tied or leading late:
G1 @VAN: Yakupov gets a shift in last five minutes after the Oilers have tied the score at two, albeit with Ben Eager indisposed, Hartikainen dressed and Petrell taking the final shift with Hemsky and Gagner.
G3 v. LAK: Yakupov doesn’t play in final ten seconds after tying score; nothing to see here.
G5 v. COL: Yakupov doesn’t see the ice after Colorado makes it 3-1 in the 48th minute until a late PP in the 60th minute on which he scores into an empty net.
G7 @PHX: Yakupov’s last 5v5 shift was in the 53rd minute, as the Oilers protected a 1-0 lead. He did get a 5v4 shift in after that, which makes sense.
G8 @SJS: Yakupov’s last 5v5 shift was in the 56th minute; he missed a shift in favour of Teemu Hartikainen after that.
G10 v. VAN: Yakupov doesn’t play a 5v5 shift after the 43rd minute; he does get two 5v4 shifts as the Oilers protect a lead that they blow with just over two minutes left in the game. Horcoff was hurt in this game and Krueger was running the Kid Line, Hemsky/Gagner/Paajarvi and Smyth/Lander/Petrell down the stretch. Yakupov doesn’t play in the final two minutes after the game is tied.
G11 v. DAL: Yakupov doesn’t play a 5v5 shift after the 52nd minute as the Oilers protect a tie with Dallas.
G12 @CBJ: Yakupov is getting shifts into the 55th minute, although the Oilers have an awfully depleted roster, with a fourth line of Smyth between Eager and Hartikainen. He doesn’t see the ice after the Oiler score late to take the lead but there wasn’t that much game to see out at that point.
G15 v. LAK: Yakupov takes a shift in the 56th minute. He loses a late shift to Paajarvi as the Oilers try to protect a point.
G16 v. PHX: Yakupov doesn’t take a shift after the 53rd minute as the Oilers protect a point.
G17 @CHI: Yakupov doesn’t take a 5v5 shift after the 43rd minute as the Oilers protect a point.
G18 @DAL: Yakupov doesn’t take a 5v5 shift after the 43rd minute until the Oilers make it 5-0, although he does get a 5v4 shift in there. Krueger lets him play the rest of the way in garbage time, much of which is spent at 5v4.
G22 @CBJ: Yakupov finished by the start of the 54th minute as the Oilers protect a point.
G25 @CHI: Yakupov finished by the 46th minute at 5v5 as the Oilers protect a lead.
G26 @COL: Yakupov plays all the way to the end in a blowout.
G27 v. DET: Yakupov doesn’t play between 44th and 54th minutes, when game goes from 2-0 to 2-2 and then resumes taking a regular shift in regulation once the game is tied.
G28 v. NSH: Yakupov finished for the evening during the 49th minute, as the Oilers protect a critical lead.
G29 v. SJS: San Jose ties the game at 9:15 of the third period. Yakupov has been taking regular shifts to that point. Here’s how Krueger runs things to the end of the game:
Yakupov/Gagner/Paajarvi – TV TIMEOUT
Petrell/Gagner/Paajarvi – (A ten second shift to get to a TV timeout with 4:29 to play)
So Yakupov is in the game here until the final TV timeout, really. It looks to me like Petrell got trapped and ended up taking an extra shift at the cost of a shift for Eberle. As a result Eberle replaced him for a shift with Gagner and Paajarvi late.
All in all, Krueger’s usage of Yakupov has been pretty consistent this year, with the most recent Detroit game standing alone as unusual, in that Yakupov was permitted to play late in a tie hockey game. He did let Yakupov go reasonably late into the San Jose game and I wonder whether or not he was kind of aware, in the Detroit and San Jose games, just how vital two points in regulation was to Edmonton and whether he was kind of willing to risk whatever enhanced risk of a regulation loss that creates to go for it. Of course, if that was the case, one wonders why he wouldn’t have had Yakupov playing instead of Petrell late in the San Jose game.
In all honesty, I can’t get too worked up about this stuff because I can kind of see a method to Krueger’s madness here, with one caveat. Over the amount of minutes that we’re talking about Yakupov sitting in favour of Petrell or some other “defensive specialist” (journalese for “can’t score”), the difference in terms of expected outcomes is pretty small. If the coaching staff believes that there’s some benefit, in terms of creating incentives for Yakupov to improve his defensive game, by holding him out of those minutes and using the possibility of playing in them as a carrot to incentivize improvement elsewhere, I can’t say that they’re wrong. Even though those regulation ties with Detroit and San Jose hurt, they aren’t yet fatal to the season.
With that said, the Oilers are in an increasingly precarious position. They’re getting close to the point where they need to win games in regulation in order to stay alive, if they aren’t there already. Hopefully, at some point, we’re going to see Yakupov playing late in those games because it’s the right thing to do to maximize their playoff chances.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org