Igor Larionov spent several seasons doing everything he could to beat the Colorado Avalanche. As a famed member of the Detroit Red Wings’ “Russian Five”, he played against Joe Sakic and the Avs in the glory years of their rivalry.
Larionov is now a player agent, and one of his clients is the Avs’ newest free-agent signing, former No. 1 pick Nail Yakupov. Larionov helped engineer the signing of Yakupov to a one-year, $875,000 “show-me” contract, and he firmly believes Yakupov can get his career back on track and helped the Avs win again.
“Nail is very happy to sign with Colorado. He’s going to prove he can be a very effective player still in this league,” said Larionov, the Hockey Hall of Famer who won three Stanley Cups with the Red Wings. “When I talked with (Sakic), the plan is for him to be a top-six winger. I think he can and will score 20-25 goals.”
Why hasn’t that happened at any point in his five-year career, with Edmonton and St. Louis? Why has Yakupov’s stock fallen so much since being drafted first overall by the Oilers in 2012, to the point where the Blues wouldn’t even give him a qualifying offer to retain his services as a restricted free agent?
Larionov is the first to admit Yakupov’s NHL career hasn’t gone the way he’s wanted. But he’s less interested in talking about the past than what a fresh start in Denver might mean.
“He could have taken a lot more money and gone back to Russia in the KHL. But he wants to show he belongs in the NHL. That’s why he is doing this,” Larionov said. “I think a team like Colorado will be good for him. He’s a young guy still and Colorado wants to get younger and faster. Maybe there will be less pressure on him than before. It’s up to him, obviously. But I think if the coaching staff really works with him, they will find he’s eager to learn and be better.”
Yakupov played under four coaches in four years with the Oilers. That did no favors to his development probably. And the Oilers probably did Yakupov no favors by rushing him into the NHL as an 18-year-old. He had 17 goals and 31 points in 48 games of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, but scored only 25 goals in 144 combined games of the next two seasons, with a combined minus-68. The Oilers’ defense and goaltending was brutal back then, so nobody had any good plus-minus numbers.
But the Oilers lost patience with his progress following another mediocre season in 2015-16 (eight goals, 23 points in 60 games) and shipped him off to St. Louis. The Blues said all the “He’s worth the risk, we’ll fix him” kinds of things the Avs might be saying now, but Yakupov quickly became buried in the lineups of coaches Ken Hitchcock and Mike Yeo, playing just 40 games, with a measly three goals and six assists. He was a healthy scratch throughout the playoffs.
Now, it’s the Avs’ turn to try and turn Yakupov into a player.
“I know Nail will work very hard to hopefully make that happen,” Larionov said. “That much I know.”