What is the best role for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins this season?
He is a natural centre, and I would play him there. The decision will be: does he play on your second line and face the other team’s top two lines or does he play on the third line against easier competition?
I’d play him on the third line, mainly because I want Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid playing centre. I fully expect we will see Draisaitl play some games with McDavid, similar to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin early in their career, but I don’t see the soon-to-be $21 million duo playing together as much this season as they did last year. Draisaitl’s size and strength will allow him to battle with the bigger, stronger centres in the Pacific division.
RNH has proven he is willing to take on the tough minutes, but I’m not sold he is big enough to battle Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar, Joe Thornton or other big, skilled centres. It is extremely difficult to play against the best centres when they are 20-25 pounds heavier and stronger. I applaud Nugent-Hopkins for wanting to become a better defensive player. Many skilled centres shy away from it, and RNH hasn’t the past few seasons. But this year I’d rather see him start on the third line with some skilled wingers and focus more on being creative offensively.
Of course he will still be reliable defensively, but Nugent-Hopkins best asset is his offence. I believe he is still more of a threat in the offensive zone than in the defensive zone.
Todd McLellan challenged and encouraged Nugent-Hopkins to rediscover his offensive ability.
“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.
It is easier to take chances against the opposition’s bottom six, because if RNH doesn’t make the play the odds the opposition scores are lower.
The ideal scenario for RNH is to start with “easier” minutes (I don’t think any minutes in the NHL are easy, but the quality of competition can definitely be different), and as he regains his offensive confidence then you could slot him back in against the top-six if McLellan wants to reunite McDavid and Draisaitl for a few games.
It is difficult to score and create offence, but I believe Nugent-Hopkins has more offence in him than we’ve seen the past two seasons.
In 2015 he had 56 points, but only 14 came on the PP, when he was on the first PP unit. The past two seasons he’s been on the second unit, and had 11 PPP in 2016 in 55 games, and 11 last season in 82 games. In 2015 he scored 41 EV points, and he was playing against the toughest competition most nights. This year I see no reason why he can’t produce 35-40 EV points against lesser competition, and chip in 11-17 on the PP. It is unlikely he can match his career-high of 56 points due to McDavid and Draisaitl, but RNH has more offence, and more importantly, more ability to produce chances than we’ve seen the past few years.
He needs to rediscover his confidence and take a few risks as McLellan suggested. He could become a vital complementary player for the Oilers.
The other factor in re-igniting Nugent-Hopkins’ offence is the potential for a future trade. I’m very aware of all the off-ice factors involved in a trade. It can be a very trying time for a player and his family to suddenly be moved to another city, so I don’t bring it up lightly. However, the salary cap combined with McDavid and Draisaitl costing $21 million for the 2018/2019 season makes it impossible to ignore the trade possibility.
With a $6 million cap hit, it is difficult to play RNH regularly on your third line. It isn’t impossible, but simply more difficult to fit in all the other pieces under the salary cap.
The Oilers want to win this year, and they need Nugent-Hopkins to contribute more than he did last year. Starting him on the third line with Drake Caggiula and Jussi Jokinen or Jesse Puljujarvi would put him in a good position to produce and help the team, and if he plays well and produces it would show opposing GMs he can still be a productive scorer.
This is a big year for Nugent-Hopkins. He needs to re-establish to himself and the league he can be an offensive threat. He doesn’t need to be a 60-point player to be a threat, but he has enough ability to score 50.
The best situation for him would be to start the season playing centre. He’s has not played the wing, never mind playing his off-wing (RW), and I’m not sure it would be ideal to ask a player to regain his offensive aggressiveness at the same time asking him to learn a new position. He is a centre, and he should play centre to start, ideally on the third line where he can be more aggressive with less concern of a mistake ending up in the back of his net.
What role/position do you think is best for RNH?
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