The man skating on Nail Yakupov's left side with the Edmonton Oilers these days is Benoit Pouliot, who knows a little something about the long and winding road to the NHL.
Pouliot was once a highly rated prospect too, the fourth player chosen overall in the 2005 entry draft by the Minnesota Wild. When Pouliot played a handful of games for the Wild over the early stages of his career, there were whispers too – that he was a bust; that he would never make it; that all promise couldn't be channelled into a consistent NHL career. Pouliot moved on to play for the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Rangers – four different teams in four years – and really didn't find an NHL home until last year with New York.
When he moved on again, it was his choice – the Oilers offering a five-year guaranteed contract because they valued the experience that he adds to their dressing room. Pouliot's career arc is further proof that development can be an uneven process which, in an era of instant gratification, rarely plays well to the paying public who want their highly touted prospects to morph seamlessly into NHL regulars – overnight if possible.
So, in Calgary, for example, there is a Swiss prospect, Sven Baertschi, 13th overall pick in 2011, coming along normally, playing in the minors now, in the midst of a firestorm caused when his father made critical comments about coach Bob Hartley to Blick. Baertschi isn't the first top Swiss prospect in that situation.
It was almost exactly the same situation as Nino Niederreiter, fifth overall to the Islanders in 2010, who ultimately forced a trade out of there because he couldn't wait for the promotion to the NHL. Now in Minnesota, Niederreiter is slowly finding a place in the NHL.
If Baertschi stays in Calgary, he will eventually land on the same team as Joe Colborne, 16th overall in 2008 to Boston, who was traded to Toronto, and then last year on to Calgary, where he is finally finding an NHL home. Colborne had three assists for the Flames in their 5-2 victory over the Oilers Thursday night, and six years after his draft year, is meeting some of that early promise.
But nowhere does the weight of expectation lie heavier than with Yakupov, who was demonized for a lacklustre 24-point performance last year far beyond any logical reason – damned for going backward in his second NHL season after leading the team in goals in his first. If you read the message boards and monitor all the chatter that poisons hockey nowadays, Yakupov – the first overall pick in 2012 – might be responsible for everything from the fall of Canadian dollar to war in the Middle East.
Yakupov turned 21 four days ago. In the U.S., he would just now be legally able to buy a drink.
The vilification of Yakupov is just a complete overreaction to a player still trying to figure it out – the way a lot of players at 21 are still trying to figure it out. It is a puzzling and exasperating state of affairs for his boss, Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish, who says: "Let me tell you about Yak. He is an unbelievable kid. He is a hard-working, very solid individual – and he'll get there. It's going to take time, the way it does for all kids, but hockey's important to him, very important to him. So he's not vilified internally, I can tell you.
"There are a lot of reasons why we haven't won, but to the point the finger completely at Yak is unfair. It's hard for young players to develop in a losing environment and that's what we've had here for the last number of years. We're coming out of it; I don't know how far out of it we are; but we're coming out of it.
"I always use the Larry Murphy analogy. When he was in Toronto, it was said he couldn't play. Then he went to Detroit and he was an all-star for three years – because the team was so strong, it hid every individual weakness.
"Our overall team strength has not been strong enough to hide any individual weakness; and that's a problem when you're talking about young players."
Yakupov could probably help his own cause by being a little more charming and disarming, qualities that might have been leeched out of him last year during a difficult sophomore season. It probably bears pointing out that Jarome Iginla, who is from nearby St. Albert and eventually became one of the most respected players of his generation, slipped to just 32 points in his second year, and seemed equally lost after a promising rookie campaign. Iginla eventually figured it out, and Yakupov says he views the new season, where he gets to play with rookie centre Leon Draisaitl, as a fresh start.
Pouliot's career mirrors all those developmental lessons as well – proof that the road eventually straightens after some early twists and turns.
"Yak has every skill in the game," Pouliot said. "It's just a matter of being consistent and doing it every night. Sometimes, it can take a while to find that in your game but once you get it, you don't lose it. He'll be fine. He's one of the best players on the team. He's got everything you want in a player.
"He should just not worry about what people say and just play."