- Craig Custance
Ralph Krueger is known for his communication skills. He's also fascinated by sports psychology. His time in Europe has made the Manitoba native a bit of an expert on European players among Canadian coaches, so much so that Team Canada added him to its staff to scout players and tactics in Europe after he was dismissed as the Edmonton Oilers' head coach.
In retrospect, that background made him almost the ideal coach to break Nail Yakupov in to the North American game when Yakupov made his NHL debut last season. Looking back, they were a great fit; Krueger likes to talk to his players, and Yakupov was always around to talk.
"He's completely a rink rat," Krueger said when reached by phone from Switzerland on Tuesday. "I tried to have conversations with all the players, and Nail's conversations ended up being a little longer. What was really easy about speaking to Nail was, he was always the last one in the rink. He was still there when we were riding the bikes."
I didn't call Krueger to get his reaction on Yakupov's benching -- which he said he hasn't been watching closely -- but to get his thoughts on how he anticipates Yakupov responding. Yakupov was a healthy scratch in consecutive games by new Oilers coach Dallas Eakins and will make his return to the lineup against the Penguins on Tuesday night.
One of Krueger's observations suggests that this has a good chance of ending well for the Oilers and Yakupov, an opinion that is shared by a few others involved with the player's development.
"What was interesting about Nail was his willingness to truly adapt to what is important in North America," Krueger said. "A European has to bring that mindset of accepting the differences of culture and humor and just daily execution in life. This kid, I tell you, was all in on that. Whatever is going on now, that's a real small speed bump in where he's going to be as an NHL player."
In the past year, the 20-year-old Yakupov has played professional hockey for three different head coaches. One in the KHL with whom he rarely spoke, according to what Yakupov told Krueger. Then came Krueger for a relatively short time last season. Now he's getting some tough love from Eakins, who has a great reputation of player development from his time in Toronto.
That's a lot to process for a young player trying to digest different messages coming in different styles. Krueger points to the progress Yakupov made last season as a sign that the messages were eventually received.
Like Eakins, Krueger wanted more focus on the defensive side of the ice from Yakupov. The way he went about doing it was to point out that improved defensive effort generates more offense. He used the possibility to score more goals as the motivation to focus on defense. Krueger said when Yakupov put in the effort, he rewarded him with time in the top six. When Yakupov didn't, he dropped to the third and fourth lines.
It eventually worked for the forward, but not immediately. He had a 17-game stretch in February and March where he scored just two goals. When it started to click, Krueger said it came because of a more well-rounded game.
In April, Yakupov scored 11 goals in 14 games and ended up leading all rookies in goals. His 31 points tied Jonathan Huberdeau among rookies for the league lead.
The benching of a player can turn sour in a hurry, but knowing what he knows about Yakupov, Krueger doesn't see it ending that way in Edmonton.
"He's just going to work harder, he's not going to work less," Krueger said. "He comes from a very tough background. He has resilience inside."