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.

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My View

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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?

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(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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Recently by Jonathan Willis

  • Spydyr

    I think if there’s thing as “untouchable” on the Oilers roster right now, it comes down to two players – Hall and Nuge.

    Hall, for obvious reasons – he’s got the look of a thoroughbred already and he’s not even hit his peak yet.

    As for Nuge, well … his skills and abilities translate into a pretty decent No. 1 centre or, a dandy No. 2 centre and every team needs that. He does so many of the little things well that go beyond scoring. It’ll be scary when he gets stronger and craftier.

  • Coppperhead

    Minus 9!!!!

    I kid I kid. I agree that to my eye Nuge is a fantastic 200 foot player. He does a lot of the little things – stick lifts on the backcheck, subtly getting in another player’s path, finding the open man quickly.

  • Word to the Bird

    Nugent-Hopkins and Hall are the only two players I would never trade. So, I guess that would make them the faces of the franchise.

    In reality, it really doesn’t matter who the “face” is. It’s a matter of who is most likely is going to win the Oilers some hockey games.

  • Chainsawz

    Agree with you JW and with the previous posters re: Nuge and Hall. Faces of the franchise and should never be considered in a trade. As far as Gagner is concerned, he doesn’t even belong n the same sentence as Nuge or Hall. It’s not for his lack of effort, it’s just that he’s overplayed and underwhelming.

  • 24% body fat

    Everyone is yapping … trade this guy, trade that guy etc… and what and from where are you going to get something BETTER than Hall, and Eberle? Yes they aren’t 200 ft. players but they have the other side… Why can;t they be coached to play both sides of the puck, bring some toughness and grit to there game.?

    What will happen you trade these guys, and then some other coach turns them into complete players and Oilers get some more 2 nd rate players in return. Cycle of rebuild never stops.

    • Zarny

      You miss the point.

      The Oilers don’t need better than Hall or Eberle or Nuge or Yakupov.

      They need different and no matter who they trade they still have 3 others with basically the exact same skill set.

      Who cares what Eberle or Yakupov becomes somewhere else if Ryan McDonagh comes to Edm? The Oilers need a shutdown D more than they need a 4th small, skilled forward.

      • oilerjed

        Careful Zarny. A team like that could very well turn into the CanSucks 2.0. Good to very good defense but not enough goals to put them over the edge. Imagine if Van didnt have Lou(or Scnieds), their GA would be up 10% and with their low goal totals you could probably take away 10-15 wins a year.

        • Zarny

          I hate to break it to you but the Canucks are light years better than anything the Oilers current roster will ever become.

          Hall, Nuge, Eberle and Yakupov are not going to score 140 pts a season and win every game 7-6.

          Scoring goals isn’t the problem. A core of Hall, Nuge, Yak or Eberle and Perron can score all the goals you need from small, skilled forwards.

          What the Oilers lack is a D who can play against skilled forwards.

          They also lack a top 6 F that can score the types of goals Hall, Nuge, Eberle, Yak or Perron can’t.

          They also need a G as good as Luongo or Schneider.

    • Puck JammeR!

      So what’s the alternative? Bashing your head against the wall over and over again with the same group of players? Or are you one of those “Petry, Omark & Marincin for elite NHL talent” guys?

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

        These guys are very young, and need good coaching to make them complete players.Its not impossible. [recall when Wings had Federof switched to play defense so he would up his defensive game].

        Guys like Petry, Omark and Marincin, will bring you even less than the Fab five, I think you and I both know this.

        My point is player development.Its not like you are taking some 4 th liner and tyring to make him an elite line one player.

    • Chainsawz

      If the players aren’t working here, then who cares if they work somewhere else.

      What if they never get coached into 200 ft players and the return that was turned down would have been elements of a championship team??? A guy can play what if all day long, doesn’t make a point.

    • Craig1981

      Its back to a player that almost got traded early in his career because people thought he wasn’t a complete player. Yzerman….true story. This is why, despite early struggles, I believe Eakins to be a great coach for the Oilers.

  • Spydyr

    Best article I have read in a very long time……..almost gives me hope!

    RNH stated in an interview a couple of years ago that he prides himself on being hard on the puck, especially when it comes to retrieval. At the time I thought it was odd coming from an offensive wizard, but after watching him play in person, you see his game from a whole new angle.

    Watching him on television does not present the little thing that he does defensively……..this kid is amazing with his hands, but especially his vision. I suspect if we had real puck moving defensemen, RNH would get another 30 points a year.

    Out team is being held back offensively due to lack of puck moving defencemen and no one wears this more than the first line.

    Watching J Shultz and J Petry you get the sense that either they have been instructed NOT to play offence or that they are too scared to do this. Both players, by the eye, look like a former shadow of themselves……..JW how do you see this situation improving?

  • Alsker

    Well, honestly considering our shameful franchise, I believe kBlowe should our face. Why hang these problems on one of the kids? Front and center Mr.Lowes mug with the caption:”What a true loser looks like”.
    Of course once/if we’re a decent team again than I’d have to choose RNH.

    EDIT: Of course it also read “what knowing nothing about winning looks like” as well.

  • 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.

  • **

    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

  • Craig1981

    Agreed +/- is overused by stats guys (trolls) WAY too much. The Oilers’ goaltenders have let many goals in that have counted against skaters +/- that isn’t at all fair. Plus the defense have also made painful mistakes that cost everyone on the ice a “minus”. Quality of competition is another thing.

  • Zarny

    None of the Oilers are named Crosby, Ovechkin or Stamkos so I don’t see 1 face of the franchise.

    In Anh it’s Getzlaf and Perry. In Chi is Toews and Kane.

    In Edm, I believe it’ll be Nuge and Hall. They have the most upside.

    That doesn’t mean Eberle or Yakupov are bad players. They are indeed very good players; but they expendable.

  • Space Dad

    Knowing just how good Hall and Nugent-Hopkins are now, the utter failure of the organization to surround them with strong veteran players is even more glaring. Consider Monahan in Calgary, Smith in Boston, and Nichushkin in Dallas. They’re learning the complete game from their coaches, lessons that have been reinforced by the play and intensity of their linemates. In Edmonton, Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov, AND Gagner have had to learn on their own – it should come as no surprise that the rebuilding phase of this organization has lasted far longer and has been far more painful a process than should have been necessary. Blame Tambellini, blame Lowe, blame Katz if you want. Right now its up to MacTavish and Eakins to clean up this mess, and I would say that so far (despite the team’s record) they’ve done a pretty good job.

    As JW pointed out, a veteran 2C in the same mould as Nugent-Hopkins would go a long way in that regard (sorry Samwise).