March 15 2012 11:09AM
One of the Oilers’ primary storylines this season has been the play of rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The 18-year old has been highly impressive, not only earning his spot on the team but playing so well that many are ready to anoint him as the team’s best centre.
What few people realize, however, is how far his offensive production has fallen off over the course of 2011-12.
Nugent-Hopkins played his 50th game last night, picking up a goal and an assist en route to first star honours against the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was a strong game in a lot of ways, and the most points the young centre had picked up in a single contest since early December.
Even with that fine game, when we split Nugent-Hopkins’ season in two we see a definite drop-off in production:
Nugent-Hopkins has seen his goal totals cut in two, his assist totals drop off, and gone from a plus-4 to a minus-8.
What’s Happening Here?
There's a lot of interesting stuff going on behind those numbers, and it makes sense to go over them in a little more detail.
- This is not a function of ice-time. Tom Renney isn't cutting back Nugent-Hopkins' ice-time - the opposite, in fact. Over the first 25 games, Nugent-Hopkins played more than 20:00 per night zero times. He's done it seven times over the last 25 games - in other words, his ice-time is increasing as the season goes on.
- To some extent, this is a function of the gloves coming off with respect to that ice-time. In the first half, Tom Renney was being very, very careful with how he used Nugent-Hopkins. Over the first 25 games, Nugent-Hopkins was on the ice for just 37 faceoffs in his own zone. That number has more than doubled over the last 25 games - Nugent-Hopkins has been on the ice for an own-zone draw 75 times. Incidentally, this is one of the things that makes me put faith in Renney's development strategy - he's not flying by the seat of his pants here; he got Nugent-Hopkins' feet wet in the best possible conditions, and now he's slowly integrating more and more defensive responsibility into his game. This is a plan, and in my opinion it's a very good plan.
- On that last point: this is also one of those things that the 'why aren't the kids playing more' people tend to ignore. There are only so many offensive opportunities that they can be sent out for - while we've seen Nugent-Hopkins' defensive zone faceoffs more than double, his offensive zone shifts have been flat, moving from 91 over the first 25 games to 98 over the second set of 25. Nugent-Hopkins' increased even-strength ice-time has almost entirely been defensive zone work - work he needs to learn, but work that he shouldn't have simply been handed as a raw 18-year old playing his first few NHL games.
- The really interesting thing is that - offensive production aside - Nugent-Hopkins is thriving in the role. Over those first 25 games, Nugent-Hopkins' line had one of the worst Fenwick numbers on the team. Over the last 25 he's one of the few Oilers over the 50% mark. Fenwick is a measure of shots plus missed shots, and gives us a good idea of which zone the puck is spending time in. This shows us that despite an increased presence in the defensive zone, Nugent-Hopkins' line is actually doing a better job of moving the puck forward - and that's a fantastic indicator that his two-way game is progressing as the season continues.
- The shot totals are interesting - Nugent-Hopkins (102 shots in 50 games) basically shoots the puck as often as Hemsky does (104 shots in 57 games). We haven't noticed yet because he was riding a high shooting percentage early in the year, with more than one in five of his shots beating the goalie, That's unheard of over the long haul - among active skaters with more than 500 shots since the lockout, nobody has an overall shooting percentage higher than 18.0%. Over the second half of the season, Nugent-Hopkins shooting percentage has dropped to 10.0%, which is a pretty average number for an NHL forward and probably around where we should expect him going forward. Savard, Connolly, Bergeron and Zetterberg are all in the ~10.0% range since the lockout.
- In other words, unless Nugent-Hopkins starts shooting the puck more, we're going to see his goal totals drop next season, and we'll probably hear lots of 'Nugent-Hopkins needs to shoot more' commentary.
- Nugent-Hopkins' drop in points has primarily come at even-strength, rather than on the power play, and that may be something of a concern moving forward. In his first 25 games, Nugent-Hopkins scored 8G-6A-14PTS at even-strength; in the last 25 those totals have dropped to 5G-2A-7PTS.
- The scoring dip probably isn't a result of injury, either - in his last 10 games before getting hurt, Nugent-Hopkins totalled zero goals, five assists and a minus-five rating. His offense was dropping off before he came out of the lineup.
- Looking at all the data, my basic conclusion is that Nugent-Hopkins has been a better two-way player over his last 25 games than he was over the first 25 games, but that his offense has suffered as well - some of it probably due to a less sheltered role, some of it because of things like shooting percentage that were always going to dip, and some of it possibly coming about because of an increased commitment to the defensive side of the puck (that last point is speculation - I don't know if that's what has caused the dip, though it seems reasonable).
Put it all together, and I find myself very optimistic about Nugent-Hopkins' game, but I do worry about fan reaction if his offense slips next season (and his goal-scoring, at least, probably will). Sam Gagner was a far better player in his second NHL season than as a rookie, but the lack of offensive progression led to a bogus 'sophmore slump' narrative that a lot of fans picked up on. I think Nugent-Hopkins is a better player than Gagner was at the same age - and by a significant margin - but it wouldn't surprise me at all if his offense stalls somewhat next year and it tarnishes his golden boy image a little bit.