On Friday night, the Blues acquired a former number one overall pick who just turned 23 the day before, and there’s virtually no way the deal could bring any negative consequences.
The St. Louis Blues acquired forward Nail Yakupov from the Edmonton Oilers on Friday night, sending prospect Zach Pochiro and a conditional draft pick–one that will be a third-rounder in 2017 unless Yakupov scores 15 or more goals this season, in which case it would become a second-rounder in 2018. Yakupov was the first overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, and he’s scored 50 goals and collected 62 assists in 252 NHL games.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pounder just turned 23 on Thursday, so while he may not have reached the level of production expected out of a number one overall pick, he’s certainly still got time to grow into that player. This will also be the first time he’s played on a team that’s had a real shot at the postseason; the Oilers were 103-153-38 during the four seasons he played there. In fact, Yakupov told the media after being acquired that “I don’t know what winning is.”
By far the best part of the deal for the Blues is that they acquired a young, controllable asset with a ton of upside for virtually nothing. Pochiro, a fourth-rounder in 2013, impressed during last year’s Traverse City prospect tournament but had been very prone to injuries during his pro career, including one that prematurely ended his 2015-16 season.
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Pochiro, a 6-foot-2, 170-pound 22-year-old, has spent just one game at the AHL level during his pro career to date, with his other 51 professional games coming in the ECHL. He didn’t even attend training camp with the Blues this season and is set to hit restricted free agency next summer, meaning that he probably wasn’t going to make it to the NHL with the Blues. The Blues’ decision to trade him appeared to be more in the interest of shedding a contract than anything else.
Interestingly, this is the second time in the past eight months that the Oilers have basically taken dead weight and draft picks from the Blues in exchange for useful talent. When goalie Brian Elliott went down last winter and the Blues needed a backup netminder with NHL experience, Edmonton sent Anders Nilsson to the Blues in exchange for failed prospect Niklas Lundstrom–another player who was toiling in the ECHL–and a 2016 fifth-rounder.
The Blues were able to use Nilsson in three games–including one in Colorado on April 3 in which he was extremely useful–while Lundstrom played in just five minor-league games in the Oilers organization before being non-tendered this summer. Lundstrom returned to his native Sweden, while the Blues were able to flip Nilsson for a 2017 fifth-rounder in July, basically meaning that the original trade allowed them to shed Lundstrom’s contract in exchange for the right to bring aboard an experienced backup goalie.
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Considering the Oilers’ other mind-boggling trade earlier this summer, in which they traded 24-year-old captain and former first overall pick Taylor Hall–who had 65 points in 2015-16–for relatively unknown New Jersey Devils defenseman Adam Larsson–who has 69 points in his entire 274-game NHL career–it’s quite possible that there’s something shady going on within the Oilers’ front office. Though the team theoretically should be getting ready to compete with two more former number one overall picks, Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, in their respective primes, it almost seems as if they’re actively attempting to tank for some reason or another.
Yakupov hasn’t lived up to his first-round billing, but he’s certainly a top-nine forward who will present an upgrade over whoever the Blues were planning to use on the third line to start the season. He scored double-digit goals in his first three NHL seasons, and even if he were to replicate the subpar numbers that he put up last season–eight goals and 15 assists in 60 games–it’s very possible that that production would be equivalent to what Dmitrij Jaskin, Magnus Paajarvi, or Ty Rattie would do with regular third-line minutes.
The similarities between Yakupov right now and Alexander Steen when he was acquired by the Blues in 2008 are palpable. Both players were taken by Canadian clubs in the first round after getting amateur experience in both North America and Europe. Both scored double-digit goals in each of their first three NHL seasons–with both setting career highs in their respective rookie years–before falling below 10 goals in their respective fourth seasons.
They’re both left-handed shooters who are similarly-sized and play a similar brand of hockey, and after each player had his commitment level criticized during his early career, each received a much-needed change of scenery after four seasons with the club that drafted him (though Steen spent 20 games of his fifth season with his original club, the Toronto Maple Leafs, before being dealt to the Blues on November 24, 2008).
All of this isn’t necessarily to say that Yakupov is the next Steen and will spend the rest of his career in St. Louis while becoming one of the team’s most indispensable players, but the example properly illustrates that a player can’t safely be labeled a “bust” after just four pro seasons, especially if it’s a player as young as Yakupov.
And quite frankly, it could be a sign that the Oilers didn’t get enough back in exchange for the young winger. It’s reasonably likely that Yakupov will score 15 or more goals this season, in which case the trade is a success for the Blues no matter what–even if it gives the draft pick more value–but even then, a player who’s scored double-digit goals in the NHL on three separate occasions and is still in his prime is inherently more valuable than a second or third-round draft pick that may or may not pan out.
The expectations for him won’t be massive, but he’s got a really solid opportunity to carve out a niche and become an important contributor to the club for years to come.
In addition to defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who was selected fourth overall by the Blues in 2008, the Blues have now also acquired four former top-ten picks from other clubs. Jay Bouwmeester went third overall and Scottie Upshall sixth in 2002, while Paajarvi went 10th in 2009, joining Yakupov as guys who fell out of favor with the teams that originally drafted them.
With as many NHL careers as the Blues have turned around in recent years (with most of those guys listed above being examples, in addition to some lunch-pail players like Kyle Brodziak and Troy Brouwer), it’s easy to see how Yakupov could become a more complete and valuable player after arriving in St. Louis. The expectations for him won’t be massive, but he’s got a really solid opportunity to carve out a niche and become an important contributor to the club for years to come.
Yakupov will take up most of the salary cap space vacated when forward Vladimir Sobotka decided to stay with Avangard Omsk of the KHL rather than returning to the Blues earlier this month. He’ll make $2.5 million this season in the final year of his contract before he enters restricted free agency. Sobotka was set to make $2.725 million if he had returned to the NHL this year, so while the Blues will still be up tight against the cap, they’ll have more space available than they planned to have going into training camp.
With as many NHL careers as the Blues have turned around in recent years, it’s easy to see how Yakupov could become a more complete and valuable player after arriving in St. Louis.
With Yakupov on the roster, it should be interesting to see who eventually gets squeezed off. One would assume that forward Landon Ferraro and defenseman Petteri Lindbohm–who previously were the final two candidates to fill the 23rd and final spot on the opening night roster–will be sent down within the next 48 hours.
But the Blues will also need to clear a roster space soon for forward Jaden Schwartz, who’s expected to begin the season on IR with an elbow injury but may return before the end of the month. With the team likely to stick with the same lineup through the first few games of the season, there may not be a real need to open the campaign with a full 23-man roster, especially since the Blues will now have to pay closer attention to the salary cap.
The most logical candidate to go down would be Paajarvi, who has made some solid plays this preseason–he has two assists in six games–but hasn’t always looked like a reliable all-around player. While Paajarvi’s $700,000 deal is a one-way contract, meaning the Blues will actually have to give him the cash whether he’s in the NHL or not, his salary won’t count against the cap while he’s in the minors.
Rattie would also be a candidate to be sent down, though he’s put together a pretty solid preseason performance (a goal, three assists, and a plus-2 rating in five games). Rattie’s set to make just $650,000 in the NHL this season anyway, so he’d be a cheap 22nd or 23rd man, but since he hasn’t proven himself in the league for any extended period of time, it’s still rather easy to see how he could be the guy who gets squeezed out.
Paajarvi and Rattie, of course, will have to go through waivers before they can be assigned to the AHL. Paajarvi has passed through waivers multiple times before without being claimed, so that’d be another favor working against him as the Blues decide which one to keep.