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Growing pains necessary for Yakupov

There's no doubt about Nail Yakupov's offensive skills, but he needs to round out his game. Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

It hasn't even been a year, which feels strange because so much is different now. Last November, the NHL lockout was in full force and Nail Yakupov took a break from his KHL schedule to tour Canada in the Subway Super Series, playing games with his Russian teammates against the best Canadian prospects.

One of the games took place in Sarnia, Ont., where Capitals prospect Tom Wilson targeted Yakupov all night, from talking trash before the game to a crushing hit on the blue line that flattened Yakupov. On Monday night, a year later, when Yakupov's Oilers were taking on Wilson's Capitals in Washington, Wilson skated eight minutes, registering three hits. Yakupov was in the press box, a healthy scratch for the second consecutive game.

And not happy about it.

It was a long way from the tour through Canada that became all about showcasing Yakupov's skills, another sign that the transition from junior star to NHL star is rarely seamless. For anyone.

Yakupov is a player passionate about scoring goals, about becoming one of the best players in the league. He's driven to represent his small Russian hometown of Nizhnekamsk and to live up to the expectations that came with being the No. 1 overall pick in 2012. Especially when there were whispers behind the scenes from scouts and opposing GMs saying they wouldn't have made that same pick.

"He has that real pride," Oilers head amateur scout Stu MacGregor once said about Yakupov when we chatted about him last year. "He wants to prove things. He's a guy who wants to step out there and prove that he can be good. The best. That drives him, and drives him on a continuous basis."

And now, that opportunity has come to a sudden stop. You can't prove anything from a press box. There's a bit of a tug-of-war going on between a prideful, talented player and a first-year NHL coach trying to get every guy on his team headed in the same direction. The coach is going to win this round, and that's probably a good thing for the Oilers.

Before the game against Washington, Oilers coach Dallas Eakins said he wanted his players to appreciate what a privilege it is to play in the NHL. That ice time on his team is earned.

"Players will always say 'Play me more and I'll play better,'" Eakins said, according to the Edmonton Sun. "And a coach always says 'Play better and I'll play you more.' We're going to go by the coach's rules."

The time spent upstairs for Yakupov recently led to the inevitable rumors of the possibility that he might return to Russia and play in the KHL. When I spoke with his agent Igor Larionov on Monday, he shot that notion down quickly.

"It's completely false," Larionov said. "Not even a single thought to go to the KHL at this moment. Not even a single one."

Larionov said he talks to Yakupov many times a day, and that he spent some time with Oilers GM Craig MacTavish in Toronto. The lines of communication remain open, and Larionov called the experience something normal for a young player. That said, Larionov has concerns about the message Yakupov is getting. The Oilers want to see more team play, to see Yakupov utilize his teammates and focus on both sides of the ice. They want better play without the puck, more focus on defense.

"I'm not sure it's the right approach," Larionov said. "When Nail starts to think about what to do next, any player like that who has a certain amount of skill and passion, it's dangerous to plant this seed in his mind, to think. I never doubt him as a two-way forward. He plays 100 percent every night. Sometimes he's got to make mistakes."

Larionov mentioned that Yakupov is in great physical shape, and that's one thing that should be encouraging for Oilers fans worried about this development. Even as his defensive tendencies and individual play are questioned, you likely won't hear anyone question his work ethic. He's one of those guys who love being on the ice with teammates. He's the kind of guy who leaves a long practice and then goes on an exercise bike for more work. With that pride comes a work ethic that pushes him.

One time, to illustrate just how extreme his workout habits are, Larionov pulled out his cellphone to show a video clip of Yakupov and Andrei Loktionov working out together in a Michigan gym. In the video, Yakupov is wearing a 20-pound vest, balancing with one leg on a pedestal while holding a giant 45-pound plate. Slowly he pushed his body up and down on one leg. It looked painful.

"It's crazy," Larionov said, looking at his phone that day. "You have to keep your balance ... this is tough stuff, you know?"

What Yakupov is learning now is that he's in a league where nearly everybody works that hard. That extreme drive can get you this far, but it doesn't guarantee success once you arrive.

After a quiet Sunday morning practice on the day before that Super Series game in Sarnia last fall, his Russian coach Mikhail Varnakov stopped to chat about Yakupov. He spoke about his passion, said how crazy Yakupov is about the game of hockey.

"He doesn't see anything to the left or to the right, he only sees hockey in front of him," Varnakov said.

It helps explain why we're now reading the frustrated quotes coming from the 20-year-old while he sits. With all the positives Yakupov was bringing to the NHL -- the passion, the work ethic, the rare ability to score goals -- Varnakov knew the Oilers were getting an incomplete product. It wasn't a criticism of Yakupov, just a reality.

The players who arrive as teenagers in the NHL as complete players are few and far between. Yakupov is no different.

"He's still young and is still going to develop," Varnakov said. "One of the things that could improve a lot is playing without the puck. Tactics. That's one of the things that's easier to get at his age and skill, which he has a full set of. For his age, everything is fine."

The Oilers won't ever become the team everyone expects them to be if their best players play an individual game and try to win games by themselves. Eakins is right to make this message clear now, while the season is just six games old. As hard as this all may seem right now, it's very preferable to try to teach a high-skilled player how to play within a team structure rather than try to magically conjure a 40-goal season out of a great team guy.

That's the positive in Edmonton right now: There's no shortage of skill, which suggests things will get better. When the games get tighter and the season progresses closer to the postseason, players like Yakupov become even more valuable than right now. They can turn a tight game around in one moment, like Alex Ovechkin or Phil Kessel do on a nightly basis.

Yakupov can still be that player. It's just a learning process to get there.