Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had zero goals in the first ten games last season. He finished with 18 goals in 82 games. He only had 12 goals in 55 games in 2016, which prorates to 17.8 over an 82-game season. Nugent-Hopkins has underperformed offensively the past two seasons, but so far this year he looks like he has found his offensive mojo again.
A good start matters for most offensive players, and RNH’s history shows it.
As a rookie, he scored four goals in his first three games and finished the season with 18 goals and 52 points in 62 games.
In 2013 he had four goals in his first seven and finished with a career-high 56 points.
In 2014 he scored three times in his first six games, and set a career high in goals with 24 and tallied 56 points.
It is only three games, but Nugent-Hopkins has looked much more comfortable offensively.
During exit meetings last May, head coach Todd Mclellan encouraged his 24-year-old centre to be more offensive.
“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,” McLellan said this past summer.
Nugent-Hopkins was listening and he admits it helped.
“It was nice to hear. You come into the league as an offensive guy and all you hear is you need to work on your defence, you need to get that two-way game. That’s kinda what I’ve been focused on and Todd knows that. He wants me to play that two-way game, but I have to produce as well,” said Nugent-Hopkins after another quick-paced practice.
Nugent-Hopkins has improved his defensive play, but in doing so his offence dipped. He’s had the challenge of facing the opposition’s top lines on many nights while still being asked to produce. It is a daunting task. It has been a steep learning curve, with some large bumps in the road the past two seasons, but early this year Nugent-Hopkins looks like he is more comfortable handling it.
“I’m not going to be putting myself in bad situations where I’m hurting the team, but I still need to create more and try more offensively. Now that I feel like I’ve made some good strides in my defensive game, I don’t think it will go away. I will still be solid defensively, but I need to find my offensive ability again. And I feel it is coming back,” said RNH.
Nugent-Hopkins set a career high in shots last year, 200, but he had the lowest goal/game production of his career. Many of his shots were from the outside, and when he was in a good shooting lane he didn’t have the confidence to bury his good chances. He averaged 2.43 shots/game last year, and while his goal scoring is up so far early this year, he only has 1.66 shots/game. Of course his shooting percentage, currently 40%, will come down, but you can’t underestimate the importance of scoring early in a season, especially for a player who struggled last year.
He only had three goals in the first 24 games last year. His offensive creativity and confidence was almost non-existent. Not the case this year.
“A lot of it really comes down to confidence. When you don’t try a lot throughout seasons, you kind of forget what it is like to go out there, beat guys and make offensive plays. Right now I have the confidence in myself and a little bit of a different attitude in my head. I have to keep that going and stay reliable on both ends of the ice,” he explained.
Confidence can’t be tracked in stats or analytics and too often is the most overlooked aspect of analyzing a player. The challenge for every offensive player is to try and maintain your confidence when you’re not producing. But it is much harder than it looks.
Nugent-Hopkins scored a beautiful goal versus the Winnipeg Jets on Monday, but when I asked him about his great finish upstairs, he gave an incredibly honest response.
“Honestly, that play was all about confidence. I don’t even think last year I would have tried to break through the middle like that. Now, I just want to go for it more. I’m not going to be toe-dragging when I’m last guy back, but in situations like that I need to have that confidence in myself to just go for it and make that play,” said Nugent-Hopkins.
We forget how much of the game is mental. When you don’t have confidence players don’t try things, and sometimes it isn’t the highlight reel stick handle or toe-drag, but simply having the will to attack the defenders and use his natural speed and skill to blow by them.
His confidence is back and so is his swagger. His coach is impressed.
“I think arguably he has been our best forward,” said McLellan without hesitation. “He’s played very competitively all over the rink, on both sides of the puck and I haven’t seen a lot of cheat in his game.
“He has used his ability to stand over pucks, protect them, then escape well and he is getting rewarded around the net. Some of our other guys, who we expect to be, aren’t quite doing those things, and guess what, they have goose eggs. He has been a very effective player for us to this point,” continued McLellan.
It is very early in the season, but when a player starts the year with confidence it is amazing how much of a difference it can make.
Nugent-Hopkins is only 24 years of age. He has a decade of NHL hockey ahead of him, and after some tough years, a simple message from his coach has changed his outlook. He looks more assertive. He looks quicker, even though he isn’t — he said he simply isn’t hesitating anymore.
He’s going for it.