Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was Edmonton’s top centre from the time he was drafted right up until the day Connor McDavid joined the team. He was destined to be no higher than number two from that moment on. However, before McDavid was drafted the Oilers also added Leon Draisaitl, thinking that he would be a top-six mainstay. Leon is developing into a quality centre in his own right, but the Nuge is still doing a lot of the heavy lifting out there.
From my perspective, the Oilers depth chart down the middle still looks like McDavid->RNH->Draisaitl->Letestu. That’s not universal, though, some have Draisaitl ahead of Nugent-Hopkins already. This creates the worry in some people that the Oilers are paying too much money to the third line centre. Surely, $6,000,000 is a lot to pay someone outside of the top 6. Well, at least I agree that would appear to be a misuse of cap dollars.
With regards to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins thus far into the 2016-2017 season, those concerns are unfounded. The Oilers run their centres in this order: Connor McDavid 21:13 per night, RNH 17:22 per night, Draisaitl 15:58 per night, and Letestu 13:14 per night. NHL coaches are loathed to tell reporters which lines they consider their “First”, “Second”, or “Third”, but the time on ice doesn’t lie.
Now, the Oilers continued success appears to be tied (right now) to the construction of three lines that can be a threat to score. It was a slow start to the year, but recently the duo of Nugent-Hopkins and Pouliot have appeared much more dangerous in the attacking zone. All of Nuge and Pouliot’s points have come 5v5 this year, so hopefully once that PP gets going there will be even more offense on the way.
Just as important as Nuge’s scoring is to that “Three Scoring Line” construct is, he has been playing an integral role defensively. Recently, he’s been hard-matched against the very best forwards of the opposition teams. It’s been his job to keep those players off the scoresheet while also adding offense himself. This also allows McDavid and Draisaitl to play against forward lines which are less likely to dominate possession of the puck.
Thus, indirectly, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been an important player to the attack on all three of Edmonton’s scoring lines.
Looking at who the Nuge has been playing against 5v5 over the last four games during Edmonton’s biggest tests of the season better reveals the role he’s been filling for the club.
Against Vancouver he played 11:52 vs Henrik Sedin while 5v5. Considering the Canucks had last change as the home team, this took significant effort from the Oiler coaching staff. Scoring Chances (recorded by NaturalStatTrick) were 4-2 for the Oilers in that time.
Against Washington he played 9:39 vs Alex Ovechkin while 5v5. Scoring Chances were 4-7.
Against Winnipeg he played 6:22 vs Patrik Laine (and close to the same vs Scheifele) 5v5. Scoring Chances were 4-2 for Edmonton.
Against St Louis he played 8:45 vs Vlad Tarasenko while 5v5. Scoring Chances were 5-2 for Edmonton.
The Edmonton Oilers are running three talented centres right now. McDavid leads the charge and will for the next decade at least. That’s a virtual guarantee. Draisaitl is developing into an important figure in Edmonton’s offense. He’s the highest scoring Oiler not playing with McDavid full-time. That secondary scoring is going to depend on his continued input. Not to be underestimated in all of this is the role Nugent-Hopkins plays for the club. Hard-matched against the best the other team has to offer and for the most part keeping the scoring chances on the right side of the ledger.
In the story of this fabulous October for the Oilers, a lot of things have gone right. One thing we can hopefully continue to count on will be the coaching staff loading Nugent-Hopkins up with the toughest possible opposition. So far, it has been a recipe for team success.