Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: The Offense Has Dipped, The Defense Has Improved

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.

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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:

Segment GP G A PTS +/- Shots SH%
First Half 25 11 16 27 4 52 21.2
Second Half 25 5 11 16 -8 50 10.0

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.

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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.

  • Also, I’m not the world’s biggest Tom Renney fan, but he’s getting a lot of crap that he doesn’t deserve, IMO. His management of RNH has been superb, and it’s something that the vast majority of people – myself included, before I really started digging – are oblivious to.

      • I understand your point, he’s growing as a player, he’s adding new dimensions to his game, and there is no doubt that he went through a cold snap in the middle of his season. My point is I think the offence is still there, just as good as it was. He looked great last night. One problem I have with Renney is how you could play Jones on that top line with Ebs and RNH. Jones is what he is, we all know, he’s a solid third liner who plays with passion, he will never be a top 6 forward on a good team. Either Hall or Omark should be on that wing for the remainder of the year. It’s time to figure out if Omark is part of the plan.

        • 24% body fat

          do you not see how bad the 3 kids are together defensively. Hall playing with hemsky and gagner opens up the easier minutes for RNH and Eberle to do their thing. They also fail to produce 5 on 5 when together.

          Those three together for a significant amount of time will equal another season of doom. We need to be patient until they learn all aspects of the game.

          Also Jones is on this line to be defensively aware so the other two dont. If you put omark on there than RNH can not be as creative offensively as he will need to be cheating a little more defensively

  • The Soup Fascist

    How much of his “fall off” is the result of Horcoff and Gagne’s (save a brilliant but brief stretch for Sam) ineptitude offensively? This made RNH the defacto #1 centre – thus drawing the attention of the opponents shutdown players. Not a lot of 18 year olds garner that treatment. Fall off / shmall off. The kid is special.

      • The Soup Fascist

        I apologize for my lack of clarity. My point is RNH does not have another centre to take the heat off of him. Horcoff has 34 points in 70 games. Gagner (if you take out a 5 game 15 point stretch, which we will generously call an anomaly) is 27 points in 58 games

        At the risk of mixing sports metaphors, that is like hitting your bright young .300 hitter in the 3 spot and protecting him with a #4 and #5 who each hit .240 without power. Our young guy is not going to see many pitches, is he?

        • 24% body fat

          and take out his anomaly due to injury 0 points in 18 games what do you got. Did you take out RNH anomaly 5 point night?

          With out gagner hemsky to play tough minutes along side hall RNHs 5 on 5 numbers would have us calling for him back to red deer.

          Watch how much better they are when hall is not on the line. Why because the gagner line takes the tough minutes.

          To this day the sedins still get sent out when they can against easy opponents and offensive zone starts, they are not very productive when sent out in a different situations why would it be different for an 18 year old. If Renney line matches and finds away to get them out against easier competition the production will come as well as the development. Hall can handle the tough minutes, this is why the 3 should not play together and why there is no need to worry about them getting more ice time.

          Give it time it will come.

      • Wax Man Riley

        I think Soup‘s point was that because of the emergence of RNH’s offensive game early, he has seen the tougher matchups than Horc or Gagner.

        Teams have been putting their best defensive players out for RNH and their seconds and thirds for Horcoff and Gagner, as they were not producing as much.

        Would cause a drop-off for RNH

        EDIT: I see this has already been addressed…. NOTHING TO SEE HERE

    • longbottom/P.Biglow

      You must not be a huge or old time Oiler’s fan. A couple things to note here:
      1)S. Gange is not S.Ganger
      Gagne is Simon Gagne who plays for the L.A. Kings while Sam Gagner plays for the Edmonton Oilers. I know it’s a bother but you lose all creditability in your posts when you spell Gagner wrong. ( hey I am about the worst spellers on the internetbut I know how to spell the players name on the team right. It is respectfull to the player.)
      2)Although Sam has only played 5 years he has averaged 40+ points per season every year(low end second line center numbers on a low end team.) You cannot compare him to a 33 yr old veteran who’s skills and speed may be starting to lag behind him. Gagners best seasons are still ahead of him.

      • cableguy - 2nd Tier Fan

        good job there tips. for next time, Gange and Ganger dont play in the NHL either.

        if you are going to call someone out for spelling a players name wrong, at least try to avoid doing the same thing in your post. unless you were going for the douche look? in that case, well done.

        • longbottom/P.Biglow

          LOL I gave you props for calling me out on that mistake. If I could spell dysleska(spelling) I would tell you I have that problem since I was 6 and I often reverse n’s and g’s lol but yes you are right I came off looking like a Delta Bravo there when I mispelled Gagner’s name.

          • cableguy - 2nd Tier Fan

            I know it’s a bother but you lose all creditability in your posts when you spell Gagner wrong. ( hey I am about the worst spellers on the internetbut I know how to spell the players name on the team right. It is respectfull to the player.)

            after giving that whole respectful to the player blah blah speech any excuse you would have thrown out would have went in the trash heap with the Oilers playoff chances

      • The Soup Fascist

        Thanks for the spelling lesson Longbottom. Guilty as charged. More fat fingers on the old bberry than lack of knowledge or respect for young Sam (season ticket owner since 01) but the Gagner / Gagne thing pisses me off too – no excuses and I appreciate your concern.

        But I see you have your own issues. I did not intend to wreck your day with the missing “r”.
        Be well.

  • neojanus

    Players slump from time to time… young players even more so.

    I am happy with RNH completely. I believe we will see total shots improve as he gets stronger.

    He is still moved off the puck easily and that hurts his offensive numbers a bit.

    Frankly, if we can get Eberle, Hall, and RNH going at this kind of clip (even if one is cold here and there), that is the kind of consistency the Oilers need in their game.

    I’d take 3 30 goal scorers over one 50 goal scorer any day.

  • I tend to think he’s only going to get better, I’m not a stats guy, but you cant tell me that his injury never played a part, it’s only human nature to be a little bit more cautious a little more careful, and a little more hesitant to engage! Not to mention the fact after he came back he re-injured himself

    I also have to believe that quality PP affected his numbers; the Oilers were not getting any PP time the last month and a half.

    Also you failed to mention the consistency of line mates, when playing with Eberle and Hall the trio is far better together then when playing with a plug like Petrell!

    Does he make those plugs better when they played on his line with him? I say yes, last game was Jones best game since I can remember.

    If the Oilers draft another talented forward such as Grigorenko-Yakupov- Galchenyuk then they can stabilize there top six, or if they get that elite puck moving defenseman that can move the puck quicker and better for those forward you will only see the numbers go up as well.

      • One thing I’d like to ask about – is it not common for young offensive players to increase their shot rates as they improve as possession players?

        I’ve seen a lot of articles talking about this sort of thing but they never seem to take into account the fact that players can and do improve their shot totals from their first year or two in the league.

          • I haven’t seen anything either.

            I’m curious but I don’t have the ability to write a script to collect the data and I don’t have the time to do it manually.

            It might be interesting/useful to try and come up with some sort of expected number for increases shot rate.

      • DK0

        #1 PP in the league means that very few players are going to see their PP production drop off this season.

        How does his 5on5 numbers drop-off equate with the whole teams 5on5 drop-off? Seems to me that the team is pretty hopelessly dependent on their PP right now and its a team wide 5on5 drought. If his drop-off is pretty close to the teams overall drop-off i would equate a lot of it to the whole team playing poorly 5on5 more so than it being just a Nuge thing

  • Quicksilver ballet

    One thing i noticed about Hopkins the first part of the season, was his stick. He always seemed to have his stick in the optimal position. Nobody appeared to be able to strip oncoming forwards of the puck better than Ryan. Haven’t seen as much of that great stick in the last 3 weeks. Not sure if it’s shoulder strength issue related.

  • I dont think his Offense is a worry. I think its easy to write off a small portion of the slump as a function of coming back from a shoulder injury. Maybe not all of it, but certainly part of it.

    I doubt his numbers will drop or stall. I think this kid is gonna keep getting better and he’s going to have Hall and Eberle as his wingers next season from the get-go. It would be a catastrophic year if RNH’s numbers flop because his points will be so linked to the other two kids. I just dont see it happening.

    Much like the slight increase that happened from Hall and Eberle, I see a similar increase from RNH. It wont be that long before he eclipses both Hall and Eberle in terms of production.

    • treevojo

      Agreed. Barring significant injuries to the big three, I think a year from now mr. Willis will be writing an article linking rnh NOT having a soft more slump because of these reasons you pointed out. Also with his release I don’t think it’s foolish to think he will have an above average shooting percentage.

  • DieHard

    For an 18 year old who makes the NHL, it’s a tough grind. The schedule, the travel, playing against talented, physical and aggressive men; it becomes mentally and physically exhausting. It’s like they hit “the wall” and need some sort of break. Then they get their second wind (so to speak) and finish the year strong (cause they can see the end). Next year will be different for RNH just like it was for Hall this year.

  • O.C.

    I’m not worried about the Nuge. Let’s just remember the skills the guy has…puck on a string, elusive skater, good wrist shot, incredible vision and hockey sense. And he’s just getting better…his comparison are to Datsyuk…Pavel’s production has not been in a consistent up arrow…sometimes he plays more defensive too.

    This year the Nuge got blasted with the NHL – this time last year he was getting ready for WHL playoffs. Then he had the combine, then he was drafted, then he went to rookie camp, then WJC camp, then to Penticiton tourney, then to training camp, then pre season then finally he got to play some hockey. The kid has not had a break in over a year!

    I firmly believe that Hall and Eberle are better this year because they had the ability to let their first NHL experience “soak in”…wait till Nuge has that chance. Plus he can beef up in the offseason. Next year will be a good year for Nuge.

  • O.C.

    Two more interesting items I would like to look at:

    1) Comparison to teammates over same haul

    2) What of this was PP production (there has been a drop in man advantages)

    As far as the delta in +/-, that’s a big “Meh”. The team was a world beater the first 25 games.

    If you aren’t outscoring the number that your goalies are letting in, (plus giving up a lot of Empty Net Goals which I think should be exempt from Plus Minus), you numbers will suffer.

  • “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.”

    RNH is the team’s best centre. By a lot.

    “On that last point: this is also one of those things that the ‘why aren’t the kids playing more’ people tend to ignore.”

    Do they ignore it or do they consider it and then conclude that there are still situations in which RNH could and should play more?

    “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.”

    That commentary would be unreasonable?

    “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.”

    When a player whose primary calling card is putting up points goes from 49 points in 79 games as a rookie to 41 in 76 in his second year, discussion about a sophomore slump is not bogus. Overstatement? Maybe. Bogus?

    What a player actually produces remains the bottom line. Knowing who a player produced against, what situations he produced in — who, why, what, when and where — can add context and is worth looking at, but let’s not marginalize that bottom line. How many goals did the player score? How many assists? How many points?

    Sticking with RNH as an example, you looked at sets of numbers leading into the 2011 entry draft that led you to conclude the Oilers should avoid drafting him altogether. The way it’s playing out, it seems to me that good, old-fashioned clunky G-A-Pts meant more than you thought.

  • @ Robin Brownlee:

    1. I tend to think that RNH is the team’s best centre right now, but I don’t think that was true at the start of the year when he was being carefully used – we’ve seen his two-way game progress over the course of the season.

    2. Probably a bit of both – certainly there are some people out there who prefer to ignore the fact that RNH’s early ice-time was definitely limited in part to keep him playing winnable minutes.

    3. Not necessarily – I’m just suggesting that it’s coming if we don’t see a shift, not that it’s unreasonable.

    4. Gagner went from minus-21 to minus-1. That’s such a huge improvement that I do think the sophomore slump commentary on him was bogus. Even with the minimal dip in offense, he was so improved everywhere else that it wasn’t fair commentary, IMO.

    5. We’ll have to disagree here, I’m afraid. The overemphasis on G-A-P leads to a misleading view on many players, IMO. Does it matter? Yes, a lot. But it’s far from the only thing that matters. To site one example, knowing that Cam Barker’s big offensive breakthrough was powered by PP second assists almost exclusively means a lot more than his overall point totals did.

    • 5. We’ll have to disagree here, I’m afraid. The overemphasis on G-A-P leads to a misleading view on many players, IMO. Does it matter? Yes, a lot. But it’s far from the only thing that matters. To site one example, knowing that Cam Barker’s big offensive breakthrough was powered by PP second assists almost exclusively means a lot more than his overall point totals did.

      Fair example. Let’s try another. Do you believe the Oilers made a mistake drafting RNH? Your position going into the draft was to avoid him.

      • Yes, I was very concerned about Nugent-Hopkins’ PP production versus his even-strength production. It seemed sensible to me – particularly after having watched Rob Schremp’s pro career – that even-strength scoring was a better indicator of future NHL production, and consequently I was nervous about RNH. Given that there didn’t seem to be a lot of clear separation between the eligible skaters (RNH, Landeskog, Huberdeau, Couturier, Larsson) early in the draft, I thought it best to avoid the risk.

        I had a substantial shift in opinion a little under two weeks prior to the draft, when Scott Reynolds did a study on whether or not EV scoring at the junior level has higher predictive value or not. He showed that overall points/game tends to have better predictive value than EV PTS/game when we’re evaluating forwards in major junior.

        Given that, I concluded that my earlier worries on RNH were overstated.

        • treevojo

          You can break down all the young guys in the draft and try and predict, based on numbers alone how a player will do Mr. Willis…I like hearing the scouts’ opinions too though. I mean Lowetide and maybe you too (I don’t recall exactly) decided to use your favorite numbers to predict what his NHLE’s were…I think it came up like 11-20-31 or something like that…which means he’s well ahead of the statistical prediction for himself.

          I think RNH has proven there’s more to a guy than his stats…his weight says he’s small…he still leveled Brendan Morrow. His size was a predictor that he wouldn’t survive his first season…sure he took a knock, but only by tripping on his own skates and into the boards. His PP/EV splits were too skewed, and so his 5X5 numbers predicted he wouldn’t put up any points at the NHL level…they’re still kinda skewed, but turns out a goal on the PP counts for as much as at EV.

          The kid has a ton of talent…and he’s learned to backcheck better than any other 18 year old…and don’t give up on him to win the Calder either…someone also told him he wouldn’t stick in the NHL either…

          That being said, I do love the picture you paint on what happenED in a game with the stats…but remember that effect is not cause, and you shouldn’t use them exclusively to make a prediction.

  • It’s normal for a young kid to wear down as the season goes along. He caught everybody a little off guard with how well he played out of the gate but his game has been consistent for most of the season. He is not having as many big games anymore but he is still a solid bet to get a point each night.

  • Bucknuck

    This is an interesting analysis of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ season. I am curious to see how he is going to finish. He definitely didn’t seem as dominant in the second half.

    Sometime when the season is nearly over it will be interesting to see an analysis of Gagner’s season. He had a five game point miracle in the middle, but I wonder how the play on either side of that blip compares.

  • Oilers4ever

    I did not have time to read through everyone’s comments so I don’t know if someone mentioned this or not…. But can one of you main hockey pundits for this site please explain to me why everyone is talking Gabriel Landeskog for the Calder and hardly anyone mentions RNH? Don’t get me wrong.. Gabriel is a damn good hockey player and will be for a long time to come… but he plays on a team with a lot better defense, better goaltending (Varlamov kicks the crap out of any Oilers goalie) and a deeper forward group. And YET even though he has played a whopping 22 more games than RNH, he’s beating him only by three lousy points. Everyone and their dog knows that had Nuge not got hurt he would be running away with the rookie scoring race hands down… Yes, Henrique was hurt too.. but he’s still played 12 more games than the Nuge and plays with guys named Kovalchuk and Parise and have a hall of famer named Brodeur in their nets and a guy named Larsson on D…. People are not give the Nuge the credit he deserves. His ppg avg blows the crap out of those other two guys (.86 vs .74 and .64) and yet still no credit where deserved. The Nuge will pass both of those guys in points by the end of the year and if he doesn’t win it then its a crying shame. He is the stick that stirs the Oilers PP and one of the main reasons it is #1 in the league… Yes it got to #1 while he was hurt.. but it was already #2 or #3 before that. Take Nuge away for the whole season and your power play is not in the top 10. He deserves far more accolades than he receives. I don’t know how the Calder voting works (if anyone knows do enlighten) but if the hockey writers around all the teams or the league vote and the people in Edmonton don’t vote for Nuge they need their heads examined….

  • The Nuge has been playing great defense .

    He is always in the proper position in own zone or offensive zone.

    When he builds up his strength he will be special.

    As to offense scoring ,don’t worry about it he is so smart he will amaze.

  • Great overview on RNH and his progress. Just how good will this guy get when he gets a man body?

    Watching him is a real treat as his body positioning to secure and protect the puck is second to none! There are numerous subtle plays that he does that do not get noticed but speak to his vision………much like another Oiler great of days gone by.

    If RNH can gain a little weight over the summer, he will dominate next year and will easily lead the team in scoring.

  • Great article Jonathan.

    I just have to correct you on one statistical detail that you seemed to have missed.
    Taylor Hall is The Golden Boy, Nugent Hopkins is Boy Wonder.
    There is a distinct difference.
    I keed.
    Seriously though, very balanced article. You moneyballed it.