All things considered, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has exceeded each and every expectation I had going into his first NHL season through the 51 games he’s played with the Edmonton Oilers.
With 18-27-45 after scoring two goals in a 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames Friday, I can’t imagine many fans expecting a better overall performance from the 18-year-old Burnaby native since the Edmonton drafted him first overall last June.
While I haven’t scoured the internet looking for the best guesses of pre-season prognosticators, I think it’s safe to say Nugent-Hopkins is well on the way to eclipsing the point totals most had him pegged for — if he hasn’t done it already. And he’s done so despite missing 20 games.
Old-fashioned boxcars aren’t the only measure of a player — rookie or otherwise — of course, as people backing Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog as the favourite to win the Calder Trophy will argue. Do they kill penalties? Do they provide leadership? Do they add an element of grit? Lots of dimensions go into the mix. Fair enough.
That said, my bottom-line for players whose primary calling card is creating offense, which describes Nugent-Hopkins, isn’t complex: how many goals, assists and points at the end of the season? Some people want to know how. First, I want to know how many.
While how might (emphasis on might) provide insights and indications as to what a player will produce down the road beyond what the boxcars can, and there’s value in that, how many is my baseline when I assess a player. Beyond that, there are some other breakdowns I pay attention to.
A LONGER LOOK
One thing I’ve done in the years it’s been available is to go to NHL.com and look through the statistics, game logs and splits for players. That helps take me beyond "how many" and into the how, when and against whom, in terms of opposition etc. I find it adds context without getting too convoluted.
When I do that with Nugent-Hopkins, I’m even more impressed with his overall performance to date. You can find some of the numbers I consider helpful here.
— Nugent-Hopkins has been his most productive against the eight top teams the Oilers have faced (as of today, based on percentage of possible points). In 17 games against St. Louis, New York, Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Nashville, Detroit, Boston and Chicago, Nugent-Hopkins has scored 7-16-23 and has a plus-six rating. He’s has his best games against the best teams.
— Against the second tier of eight opponents, Ottawa, Dallas, San Jose, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Calgary, Colorado and Washington, Nugent-Hopkins has scored 6-5-11 and is minus-6 in 19 games.
— Against third tier opponents, Winnipeg, Anaheim, Toronto, Minnesota, Carolina, the New York Islanders and Columbus, Nugent-Hopkins has scored 5-6-11 in 15 games. Simply put, he hasn’t been padding his stats against weaker teams.
— Nugent-Hopkins has scored 15-8-23 at even strength and he’s been a wizard on the power play, with 3-19-22. In the first 25 games he played this season, including a torrid 9-3-2 start by the team, he scored 11-16-27. In his last 26 games, he’s recorded 7-11-18.
— The Nuge has liked home-cooking (I think this is to be expected) and the favourable match-ups Tom Renney has put him in at Rexall Place. Nugent-Hopkins has been far more productive in 26 home games (13-19-32 and plus-10) than in his 25 games on the road (5-8-13 and minus-11).
THE NUGE CAN PLAY
I’m not holding up the stats I’ve cited as anything approaching the kind of comprehensive breakdowns a lot of smart people out there put weight in, but for me, they help fill in some of the blanks when it comes to assessing how a player like Nugent-Hopkins has performed.
In terms of projecting what Nugent-Hopkins might do down the road based on what he’s done so far, there’s more to consider – his shooting percentage, changes in ice time and linemates and the improvement of the team as a whole, to name just four.
In simple terms, though, when I look at the first 51 NHL games Nugent-Hopkins has played, I find it difficult to poke holes in his performance to this point. He’s 18. He’s playing on a 29th-place team.
Nugent-Hopkins will get bigger and stronger and be better able to size up his opponents – gaining that valuable commodity known as gamesmanship – the more trips around the block he makes. Yes, they’ll be sizing up his game as we go along, too, but I’ll take the hockey IQ and ability to adjust of No. 93 over that of those measuring him in most circumstances.
Will Nugent-Hopkins be rookie of the year? I think so, not that it matters in the long run. No matter what voters say this summer, my eyes and gut (as prone as they are to tricking me from time to time) tell me Nugent-Hopkins has a chance to be a special player. A franchise cornerstone player.
Nugent-Hopkins has been terrific.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.