The Face of the Franchise?

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.

My View

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.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

  • Mo Playoffs Mo Problems

    This may be a bit off topic, but all the RNH=Datsuk talk got me on a bit of a tangent: the Oilers are the NHL equivalent of the Russian 2010 Olympic hockey team. Good on paper, loaded with skill, but poorly balanced and underachieving.

    How could a team with Datsuk, Malkin, Ovechkin, Semin, Kovalchuck, Radulov, Gonchar, Markov get outscored by anyone? Because winning NHL/Olympic hockey teams aren’t built like all-star teams and you can’t score when the puck is in your own end. Canada took the Russians to school by using their 200 ft players and elite defenders to win battles in the defensive zone and create turnovers. Of course Canada wasn’t lacking finishers either, but I believe it was 2-way forwards like Bergeron, Toews, M. Richards, Morrow and shutdown D like Boyle, Pronger, Seabrook, Weber that made the difference in that tournament.

    The aforementioned Canadian Olympians are all elite players and are hyperbolic examples of the types of NHLers Edmonton needs, but until the Oilers get the right mix of complementary pieces in place, the young elite talent will never live up to their potential.

    • Zarny

      Not likely.

      Because he’ll have the same holes in his defensive game and RNH will likely get close to 80 pts.

      So what does Gagner bring that RNH doesn’t?

      The answer is nothing. Gagner is the exact same type of player as RNH except he’s not as good offensively and has more defensive liabilities. Both are garbage at FO.

      One of the most successful lines in Oiler history is Smyth-Weight-Guerin. That line is better than 3 Smyths, 3 Weights or 3 Guerin’s because they complimented each other. None of the top 6 F compliment each other.

      You also leave out the fact that if Gagner ended up in Mtl next year another player comes back to Edm in return and in all likelyhood that player would fill a role Gagner could never hope to fill.

      • Actually, that link above shows that players have very minimal ability to control their on-ice save percentage over the long term, at least at the NHL level.

        I think there’s actually a little more ability than we see in the study done there, but it’s lost in a bunch of other factors – such as quality of competition.

        • **

          A big problem with the on ice sv% is that there isn’t continuity on net to correctly make predictions. A player will not have the same goalie on net across his career, let alone in one season. The Oilers alone have had 4 goalies on net in just 35 games. It is impossible to use the sv% as an accurate predictor of defensive ability because the conditions change every time the goalie changes. To me it is just as flawed as the plus minus.

        • Zarny

          LMAO…even the sun shines on a dogs a** some days.

          Gagner’s FO% has never been over 50% over the course of any season. His career average is 44.7%.

          Sorry, but that is garbage.

  • Dan the Man

    You can build a franchise around Hall or Nuge, Eberle god love him, you cannot – Same with Yak – doesnt make them lesser players – They are
    just do not have the intangibles that Hall and Nuge have.

  • **

    Nuge is rarely out of position on defence, he rarely makes stupid mistakes like getting out of the way of a shot or leaving a man uncovered or giving up the puck on a tape to tape pass to an opposing player. Plus/minus to me is a very flawed stat because all it counts is if the player was on the ice or not during a goal, and it doesn’t even count power play time.

    Gagner on the other hand is not going to improve much more than he already has. I have always thought he would be a much better winger than he is a center

  • Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)

    One thing I do have to say about Sam Gagner. Whenever he’s been in a slump in the past, he’d get into a fight and then put together a good string of games. That option is off the table for him this year.

  • Zamboni Driver

    I am leaning towards Perron as the face of the Franchise. If the Fab 5 played with as much sand as Perron we’d be a tough team to play against. Perron is what we wanted MPS to turn into.

  • All of you panicked people please read the following again…

    “He plays an intelligent two-way game at the age of 20……..because if Nugent-Hopkins can handle all of this at the age of 20 than what will he be able to do at 25?”

    Our core is average age of 21. Most kids drafted aren’t even in the NHL yet at 21. These guys are going to be unreal in 3-5 years. NHL prime doesn’t kick in until around 24-26.

    BE PATIENT WITH THEM.

  • reaperfunkss

    this is like winning the prettiest of the ugly face contest in a way. Would you want to be the face of a loser?

    I say Hall and due to the fact that he finished 3rd (but kinda 2nd) in all-star balloting most people would look at him as the face. add to it he is the first number one taken in the infinibuild. Outside of the fan base no one cares who the face of a cellar dwellar is anyway.

    Sorry JW but you missed it again. Good article tho

  • 2004Z06

    It’s great that Hall and RNH are viewed as the faces of the franchise, but how about we grab a couple guys that can get into other franchises faces?

    Perron and Ference aside of course.

  • Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)

    I used to look at teams like the Islanders and the Atlanta Thrashers and think….they’re just brutal teams….I never realized just how complicated being a perpetual cellar dweller actually is.

  • builtinswagger

    Over the Summer I had Hall, Hopkins, Schultz, Yak and Nurse all as untouchable… after the start the Oil have had it’s down to just Hopkins and Nurse so long as the return is the physical two-way winger or the number one defenceman we so desperately need!

  • Nuge HAS TO FIGURE OUT FACE OFFS ASAP.

    I’m happy if he puts up 60pts, kills penalties, out chances the opposition, but all those numbers will still suffer if by the end of the year he’s had to chase for possession after 61% of every face off.

  • Mo Playoffs Mo Problems

    Another shut out lost tonight, that’s 5 shut out lost games this year. I don’t remember Oilers ever got shut out that many times in a season let alone 36 games in.
    It’s time to fire Eakins, how can a team be worst than previous years this year? He promised swarming defense, they are dead last goals against in the NHL. No offense either, power plays allowed too many shorthanded goals, penalty kill is bad also. This is not a rebuilding year? We are supposed to make run for playoffs this year.
    Yakupov is dead last with -24 (like Edmonton temperature outside) that’s is unacceptable, he played him in the wrong situations in the game. Nail is losing his confidence and not happy, we don’t need tough love in developing these young guns any more. It’s time to turn them lose and let them have fun out there.
    Too many coaching changes last 4 years, players have to learn and adapt too often.
    I m a fan living in Ontario, it’s hard over here. I can’t even see high light reel when the team scored nothing. It’s depressing!

  • Oilers4ever

    Ok JW.. I won’t mention the -9… but RNH is FAR too soft spoken and doesnt have that “messier put the team on my back” sizzle that Hallsy has. In my mind Hall Is the leader of this team. Nuge more quiet like Gretz was. I am NOT comparing player ability with these guys. Just personalities. The Messier type is what you need in your leader. Doesnt put up with crap and hates losing.. imo anyways. They need to trade Yak… The guy sucks. How much more blatant can you hold the stick in plain sight like he did last night. Trade him and Gags and get the 1-2 dman and big bruising Lucic like forward that you need. Throw the damn 1st round pick in if you have to. We dont need any more picks.