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Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

No W in RNH

The addition of Ryan Strome combined with Peter Chiarelli’s comments about Strome being a natural centre created some discussion on who would be the top-three centres on the Oilers. I expect Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to start the season playing centre.

Nugent-Hopkins scored 34 points in 55 games in 2016, and followed it up with his worst offensive season (18-25-43), based on points-per-game, of his NHL career last year. He played all 82 games for the first time in his career, a big positive, yet he tallied only 43 points and his low point total, combined with a team-worst -10 and another bad season in the faceoff dot, 43.8%, had some wondering if a move to the wing was possible.

Don’t hold your breath.

Head coach Todd McLellan was in Edmonton on Wednesday to support Sports Central at their fourth Annual Mark Spector Golf Classic. McLellan is an ambassador for Sports Central and he’s been involved in the tournament from the moment he signed a contract with the Oilers. “It is a great opportunity for me to be involved in the community and give back. Sports Central does such a good job of providing young kids an opportunity to be involved in a game like golf, hockey, baseball or whatever it might be through their donation of equipment and I’ve very happy to be involved,” McLellan said.

His first priority was Sports Central, which is great, and eventually he also discussed his hockey team.

I spoke to him about Nugent-Hopkins on the wing, and he said that’s unlikely to start the year. In his end-of-season meeting with Nugent-Hopkins, he challenged the 24-year-old to be more creative offensively and to take a few more educated risks.

Why has Nugent-Hopkins’ offence dipped the past few seasons?

“His team was giving up a lot of goals and I think he was tired of it. He wanted to become better defensively in the hopes of limiting goals,” began McLellan.

“He wants to win and he was willing to sacrifice offence, which is great, but now we need him to remain responsible defensively, but add some offence. I think me telling him it is okay to take a few chances and risks will help him. Often a player just needs to hear it,” said McLellan.

I sensed McLellan wants to see how RNH plays this season before moving him to the wing. Coaches constantly talk about putting a player in the best position to succeed. Asking RNH to re-think how he plays and then slot him in a position he’s never played in the NHL,  at the same time, would strongly contradict the “best position to succeed” thinking.

It is possible RNH is moved to the wing if he struggles early on, but when the puck drops on October 4th I expect we’ll see RNH playing centre.

LINE MATCH UPS

Feb 18, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) and Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) fight for a face off during the third period at the United Center. Edmonton won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

RNH could also benefit from easier matchups this year. We know McDavid will see the opposition’s best defence pairing and one of their top-two lines. I believe Draisaitl will also be given an opportunity to start the season playing centre and he’ll face the other top-line, which could give RNH an opportunity to face the opposing third and fourth lines.

McLellan admitted he wants RNH to take a few more chances to create offence, while maintaining smart positioning, but it would be easier to do that against bottom six forward lines than top-six forwards. We all know practicality and theoretical don’t always play out as you’d hope, but it makes sense to see RNH in those types of matchups.

McLellan respects RNH’s commitment to defence, and he while won’t go out of his way to ensure an “easier” matchup, it makes sense to alleviate RNH’s workload.

Last year RNH faced a regular dose of top scorers. He played the most 5×5 minutes vs. the following centres in the Pacific Division:

Anze Kopitar  38:17.
Ryan Getzlaf 37:46.
Henrik Sedin 24:29
Joe Pavelski 23:48

And then against the rest of the NHL and teams he’d only face two or three times he also faced many of the league’s best forwards.

Jamie Benn 19:46
Mark Schiefele 18:40
Alex Ovechkin 18:00
Matt Duchene 17:49
Phil Kessel 17:29
Blake Wheeler 17:03
Vladimir Tarasenko 16:39
Evgeni Malkin 16:33

McLellan won’t shy away from them, but I could see him giving Draisaitl an opportunity to show he can build off of last season. McDavid can handle tough minutes, and if Draisaitl can show he is ready to take on more responsibility it would give McLellan the flexibility to play RNH in less daunting matchups.

LINE COMBOS

Apr 22, 2017; San Jose, CA, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) controls the puck ahead of San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski (8) during the second period in game six of the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Here is how I’d start the training camp/preseason.

Maroon-McDavid-Strome
Lucic-Draisaitl-Slepyshev
Caggiula-RNH-Puljujarvi
Jokinen-Letestu-Kassian

I’d start the four centres like that in the regular season as well, but the wingers could move around based on how they look in training camp and during the preseason.

I know Strome has said he is a natural centre, but if he shows up the first day of training camp and sees he’s on McDavid’s wing, he won’t be worrying about playing centre. He would be ecstatic about the opportunity to skate with #97.

Draisaitl’s line played well for a few games in March and again when they were re-united in the playoffs. I’d stick with them to start and see how they look.

Puljujarvi looked more comfortable defensively than offensively in his 28 NHL games last year, so if that line is out against a top-six line they shouldn’t be too overwhelmed. RNH is a good passer, and both Caggiula and Puljujarvi can shoot the puck.

Jokinen has the ability to move up when needed, and he will push the likes of Slepyshev, Caggiula and Puljujarvi. If one of them has a slow preseason, Jokinen could easily slot in higher.

I’d keep RNH at centre because that’s where he is the most comfortable, and if his offensive Mojo is still MIA after 30 games then, and only then, would I consider moving him to the wing.

PARTING SHOTS…

  • “In an ideal world we will keep them together. I thought they really grew up as a pair during the regular season and were counted on in different situations,” McLellan on Klefbom/Larsson pairing.
  • I asked McLellan about Benning taking Sekera’s PP time and Nurse slotting in for Sekera on the PK. “I think that is fair to say, he has a very good shot, as does Darnell, but Matt may have a little more offensive prowess and we like the physicality and size of Darnell in a shutdown role.”
  • I suspect Nurse and Gryba to start the season together and Russell to skate with Benning. I could see Nurse and Gryba getting a lot of defensive zone starts, but Nurse’s ability to skate the puck led him to having some solid numbers playing with McDavid. I suspect we will see the D pairings minutes split fairly evenly with McDavid like they were last season.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • Mitch92

    It is unrealistic to expect Nuge to return to form by playing less minutes on the third line. Yes he should face lesser opponents but he will do so with far fewer opportunities. What we hope for is that he produces at a level that convinces the coaching staff to move him up in the line-up. If not he will play a checking role that limits his offensive opportunities.

    • Jason Gregor

      In the first 39 games of the season with McDavid, Drai and RNH has top three centres he averaged 16:46/game.
      In the final 43 games with McDavid/Drai on one line and RNH the 2nd centre he averaged 17:53/game.

      So he played 1:07 more per game…Basically one more shift and a third of another shift. I don’t see his opportunity dropping that much based on an extra minute per game. I’d argue that evens out, and likely goes in his favour if he ends up playing “easier” competition.

      • Stack Pad Save

        I don’t have any stats to back it up, but I wonder about Nuges zone starts and defensive minutes. Last year Nuge was second PP and often the first unit would get 1.5 minutes of PP time, so that would reduce a lot of Nuges opportunities for offense. Also, he played a bunch of PK time, more than I ever really remember him playing. Also I wonder if he started more in the D zone on those draws. I think if this continues to be the status quo and the Oilers rely on a McDavid/Drai combo for offence (which worked), then we should maybe expect Nuge to produce less as he has less offensive opportunities. It’s not like Nuge made the Oilers worse in the role he played last year, they made the playoffs and won a round. Maybe Nuge as a guy who can play a defensive role and still add some points is actually just what the Oilers need behind a McDavid/Drai combo.

        • Jason Gregor

          RNH had 29.1% DZ FO
          McDavid had 29.3%
          Drai had 30.5%
          So very equal.
          The difference was offensive zone starts.
          RNH had 29.7%
          Drai had 34.5%
          McDavid had 36.1%

          RNH had 41% in the neutral zone to 34% for McDavid and 35% for Draisaitl.

          RNH in a “3rd line” he won’t be the checking line. Teams like to match power on power now and if McDavid and Draisaitl are on their own lines, then they likely face the opposing top-lines.

          So, in theory, RNH could get better matchups and with his skill he should be able to produce more.

    • Glencontrolurstik

      I hate to say, that you are probably right…
      I do see PP wing possibility as well.
      I do think that Jokinen & Jesse should wing together with Nuge at Centre.

  • TKB2677

    I agree mostly with Gregor’s lines, the only chance I would do is swap Caggulia and Jokkinen. Jokkinen can help with faceoffs when Nuge is getting crushed like usual and I also like him being on the same line as Puljujarvi to help him out. Having a fellow countryman on the same line would help JP I think.

  • OilBlood

    Nah I don’t see him “benefiting” from playing against lesser competition because he’s a third line centre. When was the last time a third line centre/winger on this team ever did well offensively even if it should be supposedly lesser competition.

    Less time on ice means less chances.

    It seriously bothers me watching Nuge play, yes he’s great defensively but I can’t stand watching him because I remember how he was an absolute wizard with the puck his rookie season.

    Nuge is broken. Eakins broke him. I just hope mclellan can fix him before we trade him.

    • Nanook

      Eakins broke a lot of players. I firmly believe that clown put us 2 years backwards instead of forwards. But I guess we should shower him with praise because if he wasn’t such a failure McD would be elsewhere.

  • Shadesof97

    Eh, Drai should probobly start at RW with the D all messed the best chance to win is extra important until we know that JP is comfortable, a soft minutes line of JP, Strome and Jokinen as the mentor may be a better option. But definatly want to see more of Drai at C this year

  • ScottV

    Slep in top 6? Really? I don’t see it. The guy is scattered and all over the place – not really accomplishing all that much. I don’t even see him in bottom 6, once we have the depth to make a serious run at a cup

    Hopefully Puljujarvi – can push for the RW job with Lucic and Drai.

    I would also like to see Khaira force himself into a regular spot.

    • Nanook

      Sleppy took a big step forward in the last bit of the season and playoffs. He has a shot and some imagination with the puck. I think hes going to be a lot better than you give him credit. He’s also not scared to mix it up on the boards. I think eventually its Pulja’s spot to win but no need to rush him, He needs to earn it.

  • AJ88

    I still believe we will see Drai and McD playing together to start the season. I think Nuge may be with Lucic and Strome/Puljujarvi, Caggiula may start at center on the third. I am more for keeping the top two lines close to the same as last year to ensure we get off to a good start, why experiment early?

    • YoketheJoker

      I don’t mind the idea of trying Caggiula at center again this year. It’d be great if he can learn the position, because it never hurts to add another player who can play center. But, with the exception of major injuries, I can’t see Drake playing C for long. If we have our top 4 centers in the top 6F (as you’ve suggested), we’ll have…

      Maroon – McDavid – Draisaitl
      Lucic – Nuge – Strome

      …and I think…

      Caggiula – Jokinen – Puljujarvi

      …will make up the 3rd line. (That’s assuming Strome takes the 2nd RW spot. If JP is the second line RW, Strome is either the top line RW and Drai is the 2nd C ((and that’s a whole other bag of cats)) or Strome is the 3rd C). This way it leaves Caggiula in his natural position and puts a decent FO vet in the middle. That’ll leave our 4th as…

      Khaira/Slepy – Letestu – Kassian.

      But, saying that, we all know McL likes the blender so who knows… maybe Brossoit ends up as Connors RW and gets a hatty cuz… Connor.

  • Tango2Fast

    Tough for Nuge to get back to his old production when a good majority of his points came on the 1st unit power play. Also unless he can drastically improve his faceoff %, I don’t see how he can remain with this team unless he can dramatically improve as a winger. I really Iike Nuge but I have a feeling his days in Edm are numbered which is too bad. He’d likely do better on another team where he can play 1st PP.

  • wiseguy

    I like Nuge – have his jersey – but are we really talking about sheltering a $6 million player on the 3rd line so he can succeed? Unfortunately for Nuge, his contract has inflated the expectations that he has failed to meet. This happened to Horcoff when he signed his big contract too – good player but didn’t live up to his contract. This is exactly why I’m concerned about Drai. He may be a fan favorite getting 55 points on a $5 million bridge deal. He will get run out of town if he gets 55 points on a $9 million long term deal.

    • Glencontrolurstik

      Well said, which is why I’d like to see him on 2nd line wing.
      Doing the same thing over & over & expecting a different result is setting up for failure.
      I believe that on the right line (Lucic, Draisaitl) he would have a chance to succeed.
      And successful 2nd line winger & 6M is value…

  • Billy Fletch

    I would like to believe in Nuge but I am having a hard time right now. The 6 mil. cap hit bothers me. But I think I would move Kassian up 1 line and Puijujarvi back to the fourth.

    • DerpSolo

      That was the problems with ebs too. The cap hit was just too much for the limited production. Eberle is one of the better RWs is the game in my opinion, but the same can’t be said for nuge unfortunately and it makes matters worse with the huge cap hit. Hopefully he can bring back some magic from his rookie season this year

  • Big Cap

    I just don’t see where RNH fits in. There is no way you can say he a 200 foot player simply for the fact his faceoff success is so low. He doesn’t take key defensive draws and isn’t a 1C or 2C in the offensive zone.

    He’s not overly physical or speedy. His shot is deceptive but underused. He’s not a PP specialist, and I don’t see him succeeding as a winger on this new roster of size and grit on the wing.

    Personally I think Mark Letestu was much more valuable last year as a Centre and overall player than RNH.

    Taking another step forward this year, does Drake Caggiula bump RNH down even further?

    At 6M per, I think the writing is on the wall for RNH.

      • Big Cap

        Sorry Spydyr; I don’t have the time or patience to explain to you what key skills and attributes are needed to be a 3C who plays a successful 200 foot game. Especially a Centre in his 7th year making 6M.

        • Spydyr

          Direct quote from your post:

          “There is no way you can say he a 200 foot player simply for the fact his faceoff success is so low.”

          So it is obvious you don’t stand by your words. That’s Ok as I have forgotten more about the game of hockey then you know.

          Nuge played against the toughest competition last year with a boat anchor on his wing for a good part of the season.

          If you cannot see that Nuge is the Oilers best 200 foot forward nothing anyone can say can cure your ignorance.

    • Big Nuggets

      Letestu is not taking heavy minutes at 5 on 5 versus top line competition. You can bemoan the fact that Nuge doesnt get more offense and you can pick apart different aspects of his game, like size or faceoffs. But to say a fourth line center was more useful because he had success on the PP and PK is misguided. The Oil had over 100 points last season and made it to game 7 in the 2nd round of the playoffs with Nuge playing a huge number of important minutes. Letestu will never be able to handle those assignments. It is a vastly inferior team without Nuge in the line-up. Also faceoffs are overrated and the team already has size.
      When Drai is ready to handle 200 feet at center then Nuge becomes slightly more redundent. Until then he is a very important part of this team. And don’t hate on him just because he was here during the ‘decade of darkness’.

  • nuge2drai

    My starting lineup.

    Maroon McDavid Strome

    Lucic Drai Jagr

    Jokinen Nuge Puljujarvi

    Cagguila Letestu Kassian

    Slepyshev/Khaira

    I could see the top line dominating, the second line running an insane cycle game, the third and fourth lines would defend and outscore their competition.

    Plus we have a ton of cap space to fill in any holes during the season. #awesome

  • OilCan2

    Great write up JG. The number I remember is Nuge getting his first NHL HatTrick in like the third game. I am open to correction/ confirmation on that stat.

    The numbers cited in this well researched piece have me thinking the Comp/Quality will favour Nuge this year too. I agree the Power on Power coaching style is popular in the modern era.

    I like your reasoning that he gets the Drake and Jesse P for wingers. Yikes; if these three do light it up the Oilers are going to be very good. I’ll bet five bucks e coin on a great season 17-18.

  • Bills Bills

    I am sorry Jason but I don’t buy the weaker match ups for third line players theory. First of all they are playing with much weaker line mates. PJ and Cags are not top line players. At least not yet. Asking RNH to produce points at an increased rate with them is a stretch. Second, many third lines that they will match up against are primarily checking lines. Their primary focus is to check right and not give much up. Is Drake or Jesse going to be making room for him to be creative? It just doesn’t add up to me. Putting a guy on a third line to see if you can spark his offence is like thinking the drunker you get at the bar is going to increase your chances of picking up a girl.

  • Anton CP

    I will be questioning the sanity of those who believed that Nuge was a potential offensive threat considering that not for once throughout his career has ever cracked 60 points plateau. He became the odd man out due to the unimpressed offensive output during his entire tenure in Edmonton.

  • No offense but if you doubt RNH I don’t think you should be talking about hockey or the Oilers, unless, of course, you have to write what you write. Ryan will stay with this team because he is developing into the exact player he should be. Smart, mature, reliable, dependable. He’s a Claud Lemieux. We need him and we should keep him. He’s an Oiler and will stay an Oiler.

  • toprightcorner

    Nuge needs to play 3C a lot this year, he needs to put up over 50 pts to make it easier to trade a $6 mill contract . The good news is that most 45-50 pt guys are signing for over $5 mill. If he can boost his FO% to 47%, that is a win.