Without question, the most debated player on the Oilers is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. If there was no salary cap, the discussion would be very different, however, in a salary cap world when your cap hit is $6 million management, coaches and fans expect a certain level of production.
There is a lot to like about Nugent-Hopkins’ game, but he also has some areas he needs to improve, and this season head coach Todd McLellan is hoping Nugent-Hopkins can become more of an offensive threat.
Can RNH become an offensive threat again? The Oilers and their fans are hoping so.
In his first 258 games, Nugent-Hopkins had 188 points (.73 points per game). In his past 137 games (last two seasons) he has 77 points. (0.56 PPG). It isn’t ideal for an offensive player to have their production dip while they are 22 and 23 years old, but Nugent-Hopkins turned 24 in April and he still has ample time to rediscover his offensive capabilities.
He has not created as much offence recently.
It is difficult to knock him for creating less offensively because he did so by trying to become more responsible defensively. However, if you want to be a very good two-way player then you need to find the correct balance between playing sound defence and also being a threat offensively. RNH needs to be more aggressive 5×5, and be willing to take a chance now and then.
“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,” McLellan said this summer. “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,” continued McLellan.
Will it be that simple? Probably not, but when a coach tells an offensive player to take more chances it should have a positive effect.
Digging into RNH’s numbers produced some interesting stats.
His rookie season was his most productive, with 52 points in 62 games. He had 22 points on the PP, including 19 assists. He never matched those numbers again, so we could look at them as somewhat of an outlier. That said, he isn’t on the first unit PP anymore with the arrival of McDavid and Draisaitl, but his PP production last year was quite good compared to his previous seasons.
In 2014 and 2015 he finished the season with 56 points. He had 19 PP points in 2014 and 12 PP points in 2015. His 5×5 scoring produced 31 points in 2014 and 37 in 2015.
His 12 PP points in 2015 is significant because he produced 10 PP points this past year and he only had 150 PP minutes compared to 198 minutes in 2015.
I, along with many others have wondered, if RNH can produce 50 points not playing on the first unit PP. It is a valid question, but he had really good PP success (points to minutes) last year on the second unit compared to his previous seasons. Despite being on the second PP unit, his PP production was better overall than in 2015.
His 5×5 scoring is the challenge, and that’s where McLellan’s statement comes in. McLellan wants RNH to be more aggressive and he will give him every opportunity to do so this season. RNH will start the season on the third line and should get some favourable matchups. Under the current makeup, it makes the most sense. I wrote all summer starting him there makes the most sense, especially if you want him to become more assertive offensively.
It would be very difficult to ask Nugent-Hopkins to rediscover his offence, but also play him regularly against the other team’s top lines. His instincts when playing against Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar, Joe Paveski and the other top lines in the Western Conference is to be sound defensively. But I don’t expect McLellan to use him in that role to start the season.
Unless an injury forces a major change, McLellan plans to start the season with Nugent-Hopkins on the third line with Jesse Puljujarvi and Jussi Jokinen. Drake Caggiula could also slot in there depending how players look in the preseason, but right now it looks like Nugent-Hopkins will run the second unit PP, play easier competition on the third line and start the season with Finnish wingers.
CAN HE PRODUCE AT 5X5?
If he is going to finish with 50 or more points he’ll need to be more productive 5×5. Here is why.
In 2014 RNH had 11-20-31 in 1168 minutes. He had 115 shots (9.5 SH%) and he drew 12 penalties.
In 2015 he had 19-18-37 in 1174 minutes. He had 136 shots (13.9 SH%) and the opposition took 18 penalties against him.
In 2017 he 10-17-27 in 1079 minutes. He had 146 shots (6.8 SH%), but he drew only five penalties.
Last season at 5×5 he had more shots than he had in his most productive seasons, all while playing tough competition, but he couldn’t finish. He and former teammate, Jordan Eberle, both struggled to finish at 5×5 last year and both had their lowest sh% by a significant margin.
RNH’s numbers match McLellan’s assessment of attacking and being more aggressive, especially in the offensive zone.
I think RNH can produce more even though he likely plays fewer 5×5 minutes than last season. I could see him down to 1000 minutes, if everyone stays healthy. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. RNH playing a bit less means he’ll be fresher, and he’ll also be playing against easier competition. I also don’t see him taking 1268 faceoffs, which was 300 more than Draisaitl and 460 more than McDavid. RNH won’t have to start in his defensive zone as much this season, so even if he plays a bit fewer 5×5 minutes, I think he can score more.
He has a better shot than he showed last year. Had he just matched his 2014 9.5sh% last year on 146 shots he’d have scored four more goals. He doesn’t have to be too great to be more productive this season.
His linemates will be equally motivated to produce more offence.
Jokinen had the second worst season of his NHL career last year scoring only 28 points. He had 27 points in 2009, but in his other nine 82-game seasons he produced 42+ points every year. He had his second most productive season, 60 points, in 2016. Jokinen has been a very consistent point-producer. He thinks the game very well, has good offensive instincts and is reliable defensively. He’ll want to make a good impression with his teammates and he has proven he can play and produce with offensive players.
Puljujarvi is one year older, he is stronger, quicker and more prepared to deal with life in North America. Starting him with RNH in a third line role, not against top defenders puts him in a much better position to succeed.
Nugent-Hopkins has a lot to prove and with his coach’s blessing, he will attack more offensively.
When his offensive confidence returns, I could see McLellan moving him up to the 2nd line centre and sliding Draisaitl onto McDavid’s right wing if he wants one dominant line later in the season.
The Oilers need Nugent-Hopkins to become more of an impact player. He needs to be assertive, he needs to attack and use his quick snap shot from better shooting areas.
I see him scoring 20 goals for the second time in his career, and he finishes the season with 21-31-52. His 5×5 SH% will be between 9.5-10%.
Do you think RNH will produce 50 points? Why or why not.
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