Photo Credit: Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will have more value to another team than he does to the Oilers

2016-17 Edmonton Oilers: No. 93 C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Looking at Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ 2016-17 season, I was reminded of his draft year, and more specifically of the debate as to whether the Edmonton Oilers should take him with the first overall selection in 2011.

At that time, one of the key analytics concerns about Nugent-Hopkins was the way his scoring was distributed, as 59 of the 106 points he recorded in his draft year came on the power play. It’s not common for a top prospect to rely on the man advantage for more than half his offence, and with the memory of Rob Schremp (another prospect who did) fresh in the background, it was a concern.

With the power of hindsight, I’m not sure “concern” is what I’d call it, but that tendency certainly has been predictive of Nugent-Hopkins’ NHL career so far:

2011-12 29 902.8 1.93 23 186.8 7.39
2012-13 13 624.1 1.25 11 121.6 5.43
2013-14 36 1292.5 1.67 20 239.5 5.01
2014-15 41 1237.4 1.99 14 206.6 4.07
2015-16 23 852.2 1.62 11 143.9 4.59
2016-17 32 1154.0 1.66 11 155.1 4.26

The chart above shows Nugent-Hopkins’ even-strength and power play scoring rates over his career, and represents a problem for the Oilers. High-end scoring forwards typically hit 2.0 points/hour at even-strength and top 4.0 points/hour on the power play. In Nugent-Hopkins’ case, his even-strength scoring occasionally flirts with that total but mostly comes in below, while his power play numbers are strong every year. This is entirely consistent with his performance at the WHL level.

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The problem is that the arrival of Connor McDavid has stripped much of Nugent-Hopkins’ value from the Oilers. Take a look at how his scoring has changed since Edmonton drafted McDavid in the summer of 2015:

  • Even strength: 1.76 points/hour before; 1.64 points/hour after (-6.8 percent)
  • Power play: 5.41 points/hour before; 4.41 points/hour after (-18.5 percent)

The even-strength decline is somewhat concerning, particularly since Nugent-Hopkins should still be growing into that part of his game and appears to have regressed under Todd McLellan. But a lot of that has to do with usage.

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There’s a great piece up (seriously, read it) at Oilers Nerd Alert that goes into the differences in deployment between Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl and how those two players compare once that’s accounted for. Add in that according to PuckIQ Nugent-Hopkins played more against elite opposition than any other forward on the team, and less against weak opposition than anyone else on the team, and it’s easy to shrug off that modest seven percent decline in offence.

What can’t be shrugged off is that power play collapse, and there’s a simple explanation for it. McDavid is a left-shooting playmaker and Nugent-Hopkins is a left-shooting playmaker; since they perform virtually the identical function, it’s hard to shoehorn them both on to the same power play unit. This is a real problem for Nugent-Hopkins, because even though he’s a witch on the power play, the guy he’s competing with for playing time is Connor McDavid.

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So Nugent-Hopkins inevitably gets bumped to the second power play. He ranked ninth in power play ice-time on the Oilers last year, behind all the first unit guys and all the second unit guys who got extended looks on the first unit. He played well—coming in over 4.0 points/hour on a less-skilled second unit is good work—but he didn’t play enough minutes or with Edmonton’s best options. Naturally, this cut into his offensive results.

All of these factors helped determine Nugent-Hopkins’ underwhelming regular season point totals, and subsequently played into a goalless postseason performance. The latter isn’t quite as bad as it sounds since Nugent-Hopkins had real defensive value to Edmonton, particularly in the series against San Jose, but it certainly didn’t do him any favours.

I’m not optimistic about how this ends for the Oilers. Nugent-Hopkins carries a $6.0 million cap hit and has no protection in his contract against trade; that automatically moves him near the top of Edmonton’s cap sacrifice list. To stick with the team, he needs to find a way to score, either driving up his even-strength offence or moving on to the first power play unit. Barring different usage (a stint on McDavid’s wing might do it) it’s hard to picture a massive increase in even-strength scoring. It’s also hard to imagine a scenario where he joins McDavid on the first power play unit, though this coaching staff stands a better chance than most of finding a way to make it work.

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If I ran an Eastern conference team in need of help at centre, I’d be calling Edmonton regularly. Cap constraints are likely to force the Oilers hand at some point, and Nugent-Hopkins is a great bet to improve offensively the minute he lands on a team where he can play on the first unit power play. Add that to a demonstrated ability to kill penalties and provide secondary scoring in a tough minutes role at even-strength, and the centre’s value could shoot up dramatically in a new home.

Bottom line: Nugent-Hopkins is a good player. Unfortunately for the Oilers, he’s likely to have more value on a competitor than he does in Edmonton.   

Previous year-end reviews:

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  • Ryan68

    I think Nuge will be gone be trade deadline. If Chiarelli waits until next year he’ll be in a position of weakness when other GMs know he’ll be dumping salary.

    • Samesame


      He won’t be trading him at the deadline in any scenario other than we’ve had a disastrous season and are tanking.

      Otherwise- next offseason. And it’ll be a cap dump

    • btrain

      Chiarelli does not take advantage of positions of strength anyway, so what does it matter. He simply sets his mind, sets a deadline, and goes with the best or most convenient option once he reaches his deadline. Don’t get me wrong, the man is a visionary and has some mad GM skills, getting things done could be considered one of them. However, his tendency towards overpays and discounts have added up over his career and his time with the Oil has been no different. Some of these moves were necessary and arguable unavoidable given the position of weakness he was in (i.e. Sekera, Larsson, Lucic) while others were not necessary (i.e. Rienhart, Russell, Strome, Draiasaitl, Deharnais, Pouliot buyout). I am not saying these were massive overpays/discounts, but collectively they do add up. There is nothing that Chia has done that suggests to me he is able to take advantage of another party in negotiations via being in the position of strength. Therefore I feel little confidence he could get full value for RNH whenever he decided to move him, unless someone pulls a Chia and gives him an offer he can’t refuse. However, in the case of RNH who represents a salary that will likely have to be cleared, partially thanks to a number of other overpays, other GMs will be looking to take advantage of another Chia discount special on 1st and 2nd overall picks.

  • Oilerchild77

    I think he’s in a position of weakness already. The whole world ows he will have to dump salary for the 18-19 season. So why not keep him for the playoff run? It’ll be like having a rental player.