Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: 106 Miles To Chicago

We’re nearing the end of the 2011-12 season now. The Oilers have a pair of games left on the schedule and will close out the season on Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks. From a team perspective, there isn’t much left to see; on the individual level there are the usual battles with guys trying to stay with the team or in the league. Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be putting the final touches on campaigns that have them in the running for the Lady Byng and the Calder, respectively.

The latter point is the one I want to highlight this morning.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has had an unreal season. We’ve all seen the splendid videos put together by our friends at Jeanshorts and Baggedmilk – there’s a real hope among Oilers fans that Nugent-Hopkins will win the rookie of the year award, the first of any player to wear Oilers’ colours (Wayne Gretzky having been robbed by some ugly eligibility nonsense).

I don’t think it will be enough. Gabriel Landeskog is having an amazing season in Colorado and has a lot of backers among the media (the guys who are actually voting). If I were voting for the award he would be my choice.

The reason I’d choose Landeskog over Nugent-Hopkins is because the award is given to the player most proficient in his first year of competition. I feel Landeskog’s season-long two-way play trumps Nugent-Hopkins’ offensive ability, particularly given the time missed by the latter. The award is not given to the player projected to have the best career – if that were the criteria, I’d be voting for Nugent-Hopkins.

In fact, if I had to pick one untouchable player on the Edmonton Oilers, that player would be Nugent-Hopkins. It’s not an easy choice – Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle being the talents they are – but after some skepticism this summer I’m sold on the club’s star centre.

From hockey-reference.com, here is the entire list of rookies aged 18 or 19 to play at least 50 games and record at least 0.5 points-per-game since the year 2000. I’ve taken the liberty of projecting those point totals over an 82-game schedule:

Player Season Age Tm GP G A PTS PTS/82
Sidney Crosby 2005-06 18 PIT 81 39 63 102 103
Patrick Kane 2007-08 19 CHI 82 21 51 72 72
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 2011-12 18 EDM 60 18 33 51 70
Anze Kopitar 2006-07 19 LAK 72 20 41 61 69
Jonathan Toews 2007-08 19 CHI 64 24 30 54 69
Ilya Kovalchuk 2001-02 18 ATL 65 29 22 51 64
Jeff Skinner 2010-11 18 CAR 82 31 32 63 63
Matt Duchene 2009-10 19 COL 81 24 31 55 56
Peter Mueller 2007-08 19 PHX 81 22 32 54 55
John Tavares 2009-10 19 NYI 82 24 30 54 54
Taylor Hall 2010-11 19 EDM 65 22 20 42 53
Gabriel Landeskog 2011-12 19 COL 80 22 29 51 52
Sam Gagner 2007-08 18 EDM 79 13 36 49 51
Nikolai Zherdev 2003-04 19 CBJ 57 13 21 34 49
Martin Havlat 2000-01 19 OTT 73 19 23 42 47
Steven Stamkos 2008-09 18 TBL 79 23 23 46 48
Patrice Bergeron 2003-04 18 BOS 71 16 23 39 45
Rick Nash 2002-03 18 CBJ 74 17 22 39 43
Jordan Staal 2006-07 18 PIT 81 29 13 42 43
Ales Hemsky 2002-03 19 EDM 59 6 24 30 42
Marian Gaborik 2000-01 18 MIN 71 18 18 36 42

Sidney Crosby, unsurprisingly, sits alone at the top of the list. Right beneath him are four tightly-grouped players with clearance over the rest of the rookies considered here: Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Kane was one of the older eligible players in his draft class – he was 18 years and 11 months old when his rookie year kicked off in 2007-08. Neither Jonathan Toews nor Anze Kopitar played in their first year of eligibility – Toews was 19 years and six months old in his rookie season; Kopitar 19 years and two months. At 18 years and six months old this October, Nugent-Hopkins managed to equal them all at a younger age.

That’s incredibly exciting. Even without adjusting for era effects, Nugent-Hopkins is within a whisper of Joe Sakic’s offense as a rookie – the great centre for the Avs and Nordiques scored at a 73-point pace in his 1988-89 rookie season. Adjust for era effects, and we can start talking about Denis Savard and Steve Yzerman and Ron Francis. Naturally, it’s unfair to compare him to those players, who followed up their rookie seasons with hundreds and hundreds of quality games, but still: 51 points in 60 games in this day and age is a rare feat and likely the harbinger of a special career.

There’s more. Nugent-Hopkins hasn’t been at the same consistent level throughout the season; rather, he’s improved his performance every step of the way. Here is his season divided into thirds and presented with some advanced stats from Vic Ferrari’s timeonice.com:

Segment Def. Zone Off. Zone ZoneStart GF GA Fenwick%
First 20 games 26 69 72.63% 12 9 49.6
Second 20 games 57 84 59.57% 11 12 47.7
Third 20 games 62 86 58.11% 19 14 50.2

For the first 20 games, Tom Renney was starting the Nugent-Hopkins line in the offensive zone three-quarters of the time; he’s dialed that back to a more reasonable number (a still favourable ~60%) and added minutes overall. Fenwick is a ratio based on shots and missed shots (e.g. if a player is on the ice for 50 shots and 25 missed shots for, and the same number against, he’d have a ratio of 50.0%) and it correlates very closely to scoring chances. We can see Nugent-Hopkins was right around the break-even line under highly favourable circumstances to start his career, dipped a little as Renney increased his ice-time, and then found break-even again in the final third of the season. Keep in mind that Nugent-Hopkins has only really begun seeing the best opponents in that last third – we aren’t showing Quality of Competition here, but by eye it has slowly escalated as the season as continued on.

The two-way game is coming along, and in terms of pure offense Nugent-Hopkins’ performance as a rookie is ahead of that we saw not just from Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, but also what we’ve seen from many of the best of the last decade. It’s all open road from here.

  • Bucknuck

    While I really really really want him to win that trophy, I don’t think he will… and I will understand if he doesn’t.

    However, if Eberle doesn’t get the Lady Byng, I think Edmonton fans should call all their buddies in Vancouver and get them to break stuff. I believe he should win that.

  • bazmagoo

    While I believe Landeskog will, and maybe should, win the Calder, I still wouldn’t pick him over the Nuge for my team. Nuge still has more upside, and hasn’t grown into his frame yet. The defensive aspects of his game are good and getting better, and man-oh-man when he starts winning lots of faceoffs…


  • bazmagoo

    One point I would like to add Jonathan and it might be nitpicking but Nuge left 2 of those games he’s credited for early with injuries! It would still keep him around the same point total but it’s something to think about!

  • He’s not winning it. He’s the best player. Period. But that’s not enough.

    I would take RNH over Landeskog in every scenario imaginable, but missing the 20 games killed his shot at this.

    He’s completely underrated in terms of his defense and physicality, his offense is wizard-like, and his powerplay performance is other-worldly. The numbers above show exactly what kind of company RNH is keeping in the right side of the ice. His vision and awareness is so much better than everyone else that putting him out there on the PowerPlay isnt even fair.

    He can make seasoned NHL penalty killers do exactly what he wants them to. He opens up seams (that only he can see) to guys like Eberle and Hall who have no right to be left open by defenders. Wizard.

    Landeskog is a bull, he’s playing the toughs, he’s a man-child no doubt. But RNH is still sporting a teenage body and he managed to take and receive his fair share of punishment (ask Morrow). His missed time came from a freak accident, not from being outmatched in the NHL.

    RNH could one day win a scoring title or at least compete for one. Landeskog is built for the Conn Smyth or the ROTY, but his next offensive level is Nuge’s current level. No doubt about it both players are great, but RNH is more than that. He has a special quality that few have ever had.

  • paul wodehouse

    …I have no right to comment on this topic…I for one thought he wasn’t ready for the NHL and I’m an addled old fart for thinking so…g’ahead pile on!

  • paul wodehouse

    I want the Nuge to win, but I will understand if Landeskog takes it – for all the reasons other posters have already listed.

    Re Eberle, I think he is right at the front of the pack for players deserving of the Byng, but I don’t think he’ll get it, which is a shame. It will likely go to Datsyuk or St. Louis again (although each have fewer points and more PIMS). If they don’t win it, it will go to someone a little more established or in a bigger market (Kopitar, perhaps).

    Watching Eberle this year, I think he really is this good, it is not a fluke or a “lucky percentages / bounces” season, and he is going to do as well or better in future years. I’d be curious to know what others think.

  • Bandwagon jumper

    I’d love to see the Nuge with the Calder, but I think this will be Landeskog’s year. If the Nuge hadn’t missed those games, he would have been the Oil’s first Calder Trophy winner.

  • agame

    Great read Jonathan,

    I haven’t read all posts but have you run those advanced stats with all the caldar contenders this year. How do the top 3 compare in the zones starts and quality of opposition stats.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Don’t care at all about the Calder or the Lady Bing. It’s is comforting to know that the Oilers do have 3 decent NHL players in this town. Hopefully they can switch out another 6 players from the remainder of that roster and get these kids some help.

      • Quicksilver ballet

        There is certainly room for more than just that, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. There were half a dozen changes last yr (which haven’t worked as hoped) but with 6’ish more this offseason and another half dozen next, things could look drastically different here in 15 months.

        If the Oilers select Murray (8-12 minutes a night, if he even makes the club)do you think our Oilers are a lottery team next yr as well?

  • Dan the Man

    The number of points RNH has put up as a rookie is exceptional. Elite offensive skill is much harder to acquire than a strong two way player that’s why the forward with the most points often wins the Hart and the Rookie forward with the most points often wins the Calder.
    This year it should be no different.

  • DieHard

    What impresses me the most about Nuge is his edges. He reminds of 99 the way he skates. Opponents have no clue which way he’s going. This is why he finds open space and lanes – subtle moves, then the pass.

    • DieHard

      My sentiments exactly!There was a moment in the LA game where that hunched over, compact skating style caught me up in a vivid flashback, where, for a moment, I thought I was seeing the Great One again. And no, I wasn’t on acid at the time.

  • DieHard

    This Kid is going to be scary… even as early as next year.. Needs some muscle… This guy is so smart that with some muscle he will have figured out a way to be the top face off guy in the NHL> Should not have problem looking himself in the mirror every morning… ” thas more than you can say for many on this team” Hang in there , you will be winning more than the Calder.

  • DieHard

    I find it amazing that people look at almost every other stat or situation than the quality of the team they are playing on. The Nuge has not only managed to put up the numbers he has playing 20 less games but also on the 2nd worst team in the league with,in my opinion, the worst defensive core in the league that can’t make a first pass outside of Petry. I’m also of the same belief as some of the other posters that his defensive play is greatly underrated. If your role on a team is to put up offense chances are you are going to be cheating a little for offense instead of defense. There is nothing wrong with that because its your role. I can’t stress it enough that when voting for these things it should be based off of how well the player filled their role. You can’t expect a fighter to score goals and you can’t expect goal scorers to get into fights, plain and simple.

    Now having said all that I think Nuge and Landi are so dead even as to filling their roles that the votes are going to come down to personal preference and not ability. Which is also sad because preceptions of the team, ownership and managment will all come into play and let face it, the oilers don’t look good to a lot of people.

    • DieHard

      I gotta agree.
      If the hockey-minds that vote put some thought into this, the Nuge will win!!
      Eberle for Lady Byng.
      Sadly, I don’t think Khabibulin will win the Hart.

  • paul wodehouse

    I will take RNH 9 times out of 10 but Skog is a hell of a player.
    Can you imagine him and Hall in a couple years if they were on the same line ? Run for cover … But they are too similar , RNH Brings
    out and out Skill and Smarts.. Put 15 Lbs on the kid and Morrow
    wont be the only only one to bounce off.

  • Truth

    Many members in the media continue to say that Landeskog is the sure-fire winner because of his two-way game. Other than playing on a horrible defensive team knocking his +/-, how is RNH inferior as a two-way player to Landeskog? Landeskog is more physical, but the Nuge is surgical with his stick checks and forced turnovers.

    Also, Landeskog’s outstanding +/- rating seems like an anomoly. He is the only player (and a forward yet) to be +9 higher than any teammate. Is he truly that much better defensively than any other forward in the league? It should also be noted that Tyler Ennis leads the Sabres by +6 over all other players on the team, is he viewed as an exceptional two-way player?

  • paul wodehouse

    Q…see here’s where I, like you, go right out to the limbs’ edge…i think the pick is tradeable in a package for a real *says Pronger quietly* first pairing defender this team needs to truly move forward…with all the depth in that department now do we have to wait, wait and wait more for Ryan Murray too??? again??? for years ?

    gawd I look how long it’s taken Smid to ‘get there’…and he’s now so saddled with a wonky surgical neck that his future isn’t as solid as this team needs…
    then comes a #1 goaltender…those two parts alone could turn this bunch, especially the vets into a contender for a playoff spot next year …but again I have no faith in our GM so…


  • Spydyr

    I too also said the kid was not ready.

    Sure he had the skill but not the size or the strength to play a whole NHL season.The injuries point to that.Twenty games missed with upper body injuries.

    The future is bright hopefully he can strengthen his upper body a bit in the off season.Or perhaps one of the so called tough guys, yes you Eager, take the head off of anyone who runs him.

    It worked very well in the glory days.Gretz was not run very often and when it happened the team went bat$hit.Semenko played on his line for a reason and it was not for his hands.Scoring hands anyhow.