December 17 2013 08:44AM
This summer, the clear consensus in Edmonton seemed to be that Taylor Hall was the most important part of the team’s long-term core. The year before, Jordan Eberle’s 34-goal, 76-point season likely would have won him that honour.
But if we held a poll today I’m guessing that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would be the name on the lips of most.
I wasn’t a fan of drafting Nugent-Hopkins first overall. In a year where the top-four seemed closely bunched, Nugent-Hopkins offence seemed too dependent on the power play. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the player, but defenceman Adam Larsson – projected as a two-way workhorse and a guy I’d seen play very well at the World Juniors – felt like a safer choice and a better fit for team need.
But while the Oilers certainly wouldn’t say ‘no’ to a defenceman like Larsson, and while blueliners tend to take longer to round into form than forwards, the results so far are one-sided and not in my favour.
Nugent-Hopkins has certainly been the power play witch his junior numbers suggested he was, but he’s been far more than that. He plays an intelligent two-way game at the age of 20, and suddenly all those junior comparisons to Pavel Datsyuk don’t seem so off, because if Nugent-Hopkins can handle all of this at the age of 20 than what will he be able to do at 25?
Nugent-Hopkins plays a defensive game that far exceeds that of men much his senior. Less than 150 games into his professional career, he’s got things figured out that Sam Gagner still struggles with 300 games later. Maybe that isn’t a fair comparison to Gagner, but where would the Oilers be if they had two centres that played defence that way? Well we’re at it, where would the team be if Eberle and Hall had the same commitment to a 200-foot game that Nugent-Hopkins does?
(And, for the comments section: don’t come back at me with “minus-nine.” There’s a sweet spot of ignorance between really watching the games and really understanding the numbers, and “minus-nine” is right in the middle of it. By eye, there’s no question as to Nugent-Hopkins’ defensive commitment, and by number that goal differential is easily traceable back to Nugent-Hopkins 0.881 on-ice save percentage – and before you ask, no that’s not his fault.)
I’ve been tracking scoring chances all year and have 34 of the 35 games marked. With Nugent-Hopkins on the ice at even-strength the Oilers out-chance the opposition 164-145 (53.1% of all chances are Oilers chances). With Nugent-Hopkins off the ice, the Oilers are out-chanced 257-308 (45.5% of all chances are Oilers chances). That isn’t all him, naturally; Nugent-Hopkins has played with good players all season. On the other hand, so has Sam Gagner and in easier circumstances and he’s lagging back at just under 50 percent. (Note: I've corrected the scoring chance numbers above after making a simple subtraction error in the initial post.)
In other words, my view has come a long way from the summer of 2011. I don’t think there’s a player more vital to the Oilers than Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
A Side Point
The progression in the first paragraph – from Eberle to Hall to Nugent-Hopkins – isn’t exactly random, is it? Eberle, drafted in 2008, had his breakthrough campaign at the age of 21. Hall, drafted in 2010, did the same. Nugent-Hopkins doesn’t turn 21 until April, while Nail Yakupov doesn’t hit that threshold until next October.
It takes a while for even the best junior-age players to find their stride in the NHL. And it’s a nice reminder for a guy like Yakupov, who is having a miserable year (though his five-on-five on-ice percentages – 6.49 shooting, 0.869 save – aren’t helping), that it can pay to be patient.
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