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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

RNH: Last year I wouldn’t have tried that play

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.

  • madjam

    It should be noted McDavid and or Draisaitl can be traded in their first four and five years of their contracts if things do not go well , about same time frame for Hopkins surprisingly . Lucic and Sekara a different story and would need them to agree to wave NTC for a trade , etc.. So the options are plentiful in the next few years with the bigger contracts . We’ll see how season turns out and then Chia can decide if one or move should move , because as of now it is not necessary nor going into next season if they all perform well .

    • Finnaggled

      are you seriously suggesting the oilers trade one or both of mcdavid or draisaitl? in the first 3 games after they signed their brand new contracts…??

      Get off the cocaine.

  • nqmt

    Connor aside, Nuge is my favorite player in the new era so i’m so happy he’s feeling confident. He’s the wild card for us. We’ll be in such a better place if Nuge’s line produces

  • oilerjed

    I’m ok paying Nuge 6 million to play 2C and Drai 8 million to play 1RW. Fill in the rest of the wings (after looch ) as cheap as possible and hope that they step up. If Nuge can find his game again, the Oilers are suddenly flush with center depth for another 3+ years and have a top line that can produce against any team in the NHL.
    Nurse will need a raise but isn’t developing so fast as to warrant a huge raise, similar with Benning. Re-upping with 3-4 year deals with both of them and our Defense is set at a reasonable cost at the same time as our center depth.
    If two of our bottom 6 wingers can exceed expectations then the Oil are sitting pretty and ready to be perennial contenders with Nuge playing a huge part.

  • BringtheFire 2.0

    Weren’t the writers here talking about trading Nuge this past summer?

    Don’t.

    Oh wait, I’m a Flames fan.

    You should totally trade that guy! He’s, um…a bad hockey player!

    Yeah!!!

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    so why is Nuge still trying to learn how to be a great all round player at the beginning of his 7th NHL season? now we see the kind of damage the Old Boys Club did to guys like Nuge and Eberle.

    • Glencontrolurstik

      You are 100% right…
      But hey, he’s only 24… I know, hard to fathom, seems like he’s been here forever…
      There are 8 – 10 years left for Nuge & he is still developing as stated in the article….
      It’d be a huge mistake trading him….
      Why are we searching for a first liner RW, when we have one right here, maybe?

  • madjam

    RADAR ALERT ? David Gust scores two goals and was +- 3 in first game with Condors tonight in a 5-4 victory . 23 year old Ohio State grad RW 5″ 10″ and 174 lbs.. Last years stats 39G with 18G,23A= 41 points . Brad Malone (C)continues to impress with a 2 goal performance as well .C. Jones no points and a -4 after first two games while Bear and Mantha lead defence with + and 2 points each . Do we have a diamond in the rough in Gust ? Jesse had another assist tonight if anyone interested .

    • Big Nuggets

      Suprising stats from C Jones, I thought he would tear it up in the A. The future of our defence still looks bright. Hopefully our NHL defencemen show they can win without Sekera. I like Sek but I would rather keep Nuge on the team if possible. I really hope this is the year Nuge puts it all together.

    • OriginalPouzar

      Gust is on an AHL only contract – lets see how he’s done after the season is over – one game is a bit much.

      Malone has his name in the conversation for the first forward call-up, when needed.

      Puljijarvi made a horrid neutral zone turnovers that led to a 3 on 1 against and a goal – that’s fine, he’s in the AHL to make mistakes, learn from then and move on. The issue is, he floated on the back check and that is not acceptable. Hopefully he got a talking to about that.

    • Big Nuggets

      Should be just entering his prime. 6 million has been a lot to pay for his services up to now, but his contract was meant to have better value on the back half. I’m still a Nuge believer but he’s got to show it this year. Let’s go Nuge! Prove the nay-sayers wrong