Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins occupy positions at the top of the marquee and the pay scale with the Edmonton Oilers, so it’s no big surprise GM Craig MacTavish expects them to perform like it.
What is somewhat surprising (and refreshing) is MacTavish came out and said so for public consumption in an interview with TSN’s Bob McKenzie, stating what more than a few fans have been thinking – if the Oilers are to return to playoff contention, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins have to be better.
Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins, along with Taylor Hall, have long-and-often been identified as the core of the team MacTavish is trying to build. They’ve been pretty good – occasionally brilliant — so far during their relatively brief NHL careers, but the boss is looking for more from both of them.
As he should.
WHAT HE SAID
“We all know Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle are really good players but what we don’t know is whether they are star players,” MacTavish told McKenzie as part of a wide-ranging interview you can read here.
“They have a lot of room for growth…but they’ve had enough experience and enough time. I think, in fairness to them, they want this more so than anybody else. We need to see whether they’re going to be good players or whether they’re going to be star players.”
Eberle, 24, begins his fifth NHL season with the Oilers having scored 43, 76, 37 and 65 points in his first four seasons. That’s translated in points-per-game to .62, .97, .71 and .81 as the team’s top right winger. All told, he’s scored 96-125-221 in 275 games.
Nugent-Hopkins, 21, has three NHL seasons on his resume. He’s produced 52, 24 and 56 points, scoring at a rate of .84, .60 and .70 PPG as the team’s No. 1 centre. Slowed by a bad shoulder that required surgery, RNH has yet to be as prolific as he was in his rookie season when he tallied 18-34-52 in 62 games. Overall, he’s scored 41-91-132 in 182 games.
While MacTavish’s characterization of Eberle and RNH as “really good players” might be a touch pointed considering they and Hall have been thrown into the fray as kids without enough depth to protect them, he’s absolutely right. Now’s the time for both of them to elevate, as Hall has.
From where I sit, the biggest challenge facing Nugent-Hopkins remains the physical aspect of the game. Simply put, he has to stay healthy and he has to do it playing against a host of first-line centres in the Western Conference who are bigger and stronger than he is.
It’s not like RNH has been injury prone – he injured an already troublesome shoulder by toe-picking and vaulting himself into the boards. He played 80 of 82 games last season. If he can stay in the line-up and produce at the .84 PPG pace he did as a rookie this season, many doubters will clam up.
I’m less concerned about Eberle. His career PPG of .80 on a team where opposing coaches have been able to key on him, Hall and RNH is pretty good in my books. Still, like MacTavish, I think there’s more, particularly with a forward group that will be deeper overall this season than it’s been in past seasons. Plus, with 275 games in the books, Eberle has been around the block enough times to know who and what he’s up against.
MacTavish also touched on Nail Yakupov, entering his third season after a 2013-14 campaign in which he struggled with 11-13-24 in 63 games under new coach Dallas Eakins, in his discussion with McKenzie.
“Development is seldom a straight line,” MacTavish said. “For very few people, maybe Sidney Crosby started here and went higher, but I think generally we put way too much pressure on young players.
“I expect Nail to go in (to training camp), hopefully be able to breathe a little bit, take some pressure off and just gain some experience and continue to develop.”
The issues between Eakins and Yakupov we know. After tallying 17-14-31 in 48 games as a rookie, Yakupov’s erratic play and defensive lapses landed him in the doghouse with Eakins, a stay that included being made a healthy-scratch in back-to-back games.
I’m expecting a clean slate this season. If talk of same translates to action (and more power-play time) and Yakupov makes the most of it, I can see him scoring 25 goals, which is what I had him pegged for last season.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.