Todd McLellan had a superb pre-game press conference on Wednesday morning. In it, he was nuanced and thoughtful. He explained the difference between patience and acceptance and he ran through how the coaching staff helps an offensive player rediscover his offence.
Oh, and he defended Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. To the hilt.
McLellan started by noting that his post-game commentary after Monday’s loss to Toronto had created some of the storm around players like Nugent-Hopkins. Then he launched into a staunch defence of the player.
When I look at Nuge, I think he’s a really valuable player to our team. When you go to the 2011 Draft, he’s played the second-most games out of anybody there. Him and Landeskog are heads and tails above anybody else when it comes to scoring.
Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog leads the 2011 Draft class with 213 points in 304 games. Nugent-Hopkins is eight points back, but has played in 22 fewer contests than Landeskog. Nobody else from the draft is within even 50 points of Nugent-Hopkins.
It’s not Nuge’s fault he’s 5’10”, he can’t change that. He uses what he has, night-in and night-out.
That would seem to be the coach’s way of saying that drive and competitiveness aren’t issues with Nugent-Hopkins. “Soft skill” isn’t a phrase one is likely to hear from McLellan’s lips.
He had a tough trip. The sun came up today for all of us; I expect that to change over time.
McLellan obviously isn’t blind to the struggles of Nugent-Hopkins’ line over the last five games, and he expects better. But this is a relatively small segment for a player who has been a consistent producer on a bad team. And there are other factors worth noting.
Nuge is also the guy who has been moved around; they had a line that was going really strong, we lose Connor, Nuge has to come to the rescue, occupy a spot on a different line. So he’s lost his linemates, he’s been moved around to different power plays.
This is telling. When Connor McDavid got hurt, it wasn’t Leon Draisaitl who got bumped away from Taylor Hall to create secondary scoring; Draisaitl isn’t at a point in his career where it’s fair to expect that of him. It was Nugent-Hopkins that the coach leaned on. It hasn’t worked out, but it’s also not like he’s still riding shotgun for Hall.
Am I defending Nuge? Absolutely I am, because I believe in him 100 percent.
There’s not a lot of room for misinterpretation here. This is a player the coach believes in. He reinforced that when asked who Nugent-Hopkins reminds him of.
Joe Pavelski. Because he’s small, he’s competitive, he understands the game. You’ve got remember that Joe Pavelski played four years at Wisconsin before he even got to the league. I think Joe didn’t develop at Waterloo of the USHL until he was 19; Nuge had already put in 132 games in the NHL at that point. Nuge is 22 years old, you guys. He’s 22.
That’s high praise. Pavelski was McLellan’s spackle in San Jose, the player he could move around here, there and everywhere whenever a hole appeared. Pavelski could centre on any of the top three lines, and he could play the wing, too. He was also adept at transitioning from offensive roles to more defensive roles, and was used on both special teams.
Again, this is telling. When one looks at the Oilers’ key players, there’s an awful lot of talent there but as of right now not a lot of all-purpose players. That’s what Nugent-Hopkins brings to the table in a way that no other individual currently on the roster does. He can play on the power play, the penalty kill, centre a hard minutes line and generate offence at five-on-five. He has a richly varied skillset on a team with too many one-dimensional players.
There’s been a lot of focus lately on size and brawn, with many looking at the team through the lens of size/strength and not-size/strength players. It’s probably more useful to look at the team in terms of offence/defence, with Nugent-Hopkins being one of the few forwards who occupies both spheres.
I think he has the brain and the will to do it. Has he had a tough stretch? Absolutely he has. Is it all on his 5’10” shoulders? Some of it is, but not all of it.
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