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