Photo Credit: © Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

When RNH returns in March play him at LW

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is skating with the Oilers and will return to the lineup in early March. When he comes back Todd McLellan should play him at left wing, and I’d start him with Connor McDavid.

Moving Nugent-Hopkins to left wing makes sense for many reasons.

With Patrick Maroon traded to New Jersey, the Oilers need another top-six left winger next year. I know Maroon said he’d consider re-signing in Edmonton, but I’d be surprised if that occurs. The Oilers need a new top-six left winger and they have none ready in the AHL. Sure, they could look at free agency, but why overpay for a winger, when you have a perfect solution in house?

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Ryan Strome is better suited as a third line winger than Nugent-Hopkins. He isn’t as good, will cost half as much and has looked more comfortable and productive as a centre than he did as a right winger. The theory of a three scoring lines is great, but it rarely works. Pittsburgh is the ultimate outlier, and even they don’t run Phil Kessel on their third line regularly. The only reason it worked in Pittsburgh for the 2016 playoffs was because Kessel is an elite scorer. He can carry a line.

In Kessel’s seven seasons prior to being traded to Pittsburgh, he scored the sixth most goals in the NHL and was 15th in points. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were second and fifth in points in those seven years, and when the trio was put together in Pittsburgh they won two Stanley Cups. From 2008/2009 to today, Crosby has scored the most points, 802, Malkin is fourth with 717 and Kessel is 10th with 653. Kessel is a hell of a player, and the Oilers, like every team not named Pittsburgh, don’t have the luxury of putting a top-ten scorer over the past decade on their third line for 20 or 30-game stretches.

Outside of on-ice production, let’s look at the salary cap. It doesn’t make much sense to pay Nugent-Hopkins $6 million to be the third line centre. Let him play in the top-six with McDavid — or Leon Draisaitl, as I’m sure the lines could switch from time-to-time — but when he returns to the lineup I’d slot him beside McDavid for the remainder of the season and see how they do.

The Oilers need a scoring left winger. If they sign one in free agency they will have to overpay him. Evander Kane, James Neal and James Van Reimsdyk are all pending UFAs. Neal will be 31 years of age next season, JVR will be 29 and Kane will be 27. Kane would make the most sense age wise, but the finances won’t work if the Oilers are paying $27 million for three centres and then adding another $5 million winger to go along with Milan Lucic’s $6 million.

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Jan 16, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) celebrates his first period goal with teammates against the Arizona Coyotes during the first period at Rogers Place.Mandatory Credit: Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

Nugent-Hopkins played left wing, albeit briefly, at the World Cup last year. He is already competent at defensive responsibilities, and will likely be fresher having fewer defensive responsibilities against big, strong centres, which could help his offensive game. Less wear and tear might also lower his games missed due to injury.

The first overall pick in 2011 was having a good season prior to getting injured in Vegas. He had 16-15-31 in 46 games and was on pace (55 points) to finish around his career-best 56 points. He was on pace for a career-high in goals with 28, but that is only on pace. It isn’t actual numbers, and I’m always skeptical to prorate a player because there is zero guarantee they will continue at their pace.

At Christmas, through 36 games, Milan Lucic was on pace for 21 goals and 59 points, a total he’s reached three times prior in his career. Today he is on pace for 12 goals and 40 points. There is no guarantees a player will maintain their early-season pace, but when you look at Nugent-Hopkins, the fact he was on pace for 55 points, combined with him reaching 56 points twice, it is safe to say we know what his offensive production will be as a centre.

He won’t be as productive as Draisaitl or McDavid — which is fine, as they are both excellent point producers — but maybe RNH can be even more productive if he plays left wing with one of them. If you look at the Oilers current roster, he is their third best forward. Why not play him on the left wing in the top six?

Draisaitl is bigger, stronger, more skilled and better in faceoffs. He is better equipped to face Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar and other elite, skilled centres in the west. Draisaitl is currently producing with an aging Mike Cammalleri on his left wing. Draisaitl has 24 points in his last 19 games and that’s with very little powerplay production.

Nugent-Hopkins is the most skilled forward after McDavid and Draisaitl, so why not play him with one of them? I have no doubt he will produce more than any other winger currently on the roster. Why would you sign a UFA left-winger, when you have RNH here and Strome is showing you he can be a very capable third line centre?

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Strome doesn’t need to put up huge numbers to be an effective third line centre. If he can produce 25-30 EV points and chip in some more on the PP, that is good production from a third line centre in today’s NHL.

Strome has 24 EV points this season, and while he hasn’t played centre exclusively, he has played there more than on the wing. He has played 756 minutes at EV and his most common linemates have been:

Jujhar Khaira (255:16), Draisaitl (187:30), Drake Caggiula (173:15), Mike Cammalleri (159:12), Patrick Maroon (102:42), Nugent-Hopkins (97:36), Anton Slepyshev (91:52), Milan Lucic (90:13), Jussi Jokinen (85:45), Jesse Puljujarvi (83:25), Iiro Pakarinen (57:57) and Zack Kassian (56:07). He has only played 49 minutes at EV with McDavid.

Strome has done quite well considering he’s on a new team, playing with new players consistently and has had to switch back to playing centre regularly. He didn’t look as effective as a winger, and he has surprised me how well he’s played lately at centre. When I saw him there early in the season, I wasn’t sold he could be effective. I was mistaken. He looks more comfortable and confident playing centre and his production, combined with his price point, make him a better fit as a 3C than Nugent-Hopkins.

Plus, Nugent-Hopkins makes a better fit for the team playing left wing on the top two lines.

When he returns to the lineup, I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t try him at left wing. The Oilers have a need and he’s the best option today, and moving forward, to use as a skilled left winger.

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This move solves fills a big hole without having to give up an asset or overpay a free agent.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • Petrolero

    Hi Gregor, any ideas on why McClellan is so resistant to change? I get it that each coach likes to do his own thing, but TMac is one of the most stubborn (legit) bench bosses I can remember seeing in the past decade (Ken Hitchcock is the other one who comes to mind).

    • Hemmercules

      Just to add to this comment, has Mcl ever been asked about playing Nuge on the wing during a media availability or post game? It gets mentioned so often but McL has never tried it that I have seen.

    • Jason Gregor

      He has switched up lines often, but I think he liked 97-29 more cause it was proven success. Now that we have seen Draisaitl more at centre, and not surprisingly doing well, I think it makes even more sense to move RNH to the wing. Once RNH is cleared to play I will be asking Todd about moving him there.

    • acesaaron

      Like everybody else, there is no doubt in my mind that Chia made some bad trades and did not get full value for what he gave up in the Reinhart/Hall/Eberle deals. But when I think about the season and how it has gone, I am actually more inclined to blame Todd MacLellan and his coaching staff as a big part of the problem.

      First of all, trying to sort out lines and where people are playing should be done in training camp and exhibition. The Yamamoto experiment was good but why keep him here to start if we know he’s being sent back to junior. Not figuring out where Strome fits until now, overuse of Letestu and Cagguila all year, horrific special teams and lack of developing our young Finn have nothing to do with the GM. Those factors have a big role to play as to why the Oilers are where they are.

      Lastly, I’m sick and tired of MacLellan rolling out the old “well, I guess that’s how the calls go in this league” crap after every game. No other coach puts up with such questionable calls. They demand the refs come over to explain their case and, regardless of the explanation, give them an earful. I wouldn’t be so tired of things if TMac talked to the refs out there but I never see that happening. If the players don’t feel that their coach is going to bat for them when they are playing, he’s going to lose the room. No passion and fire on the bench on behalf of your team gets passed down as well and Todd better figure that out in a hurry.

  • Kneedroptalbot

    McDavid is probably the fastest skater in the league. Play him on the wing where he can fly and blow by D-men, with Nuge and his puck control skill and passing in the middle.

    • OilersGM

      I get what you are saying but McDavid is one of the best if not the best at takeaways and transitioning the puck the other way and Nuge at the wing would probably bump his numbers up as Gregor mentioned.

      • NoBuBlackOPS

        @jsch999 the oilers biggest strength is are depth at centre. Playing are 3 best players on one line is a terrible idea. Who plays 2C Strome? He’s struggled when he plays C that high in the lineup. At 3C would be Khaira I see no problem giving him a shot at 3C he’s taken good steps forward this year. Though I see him as a more of 4C/3RW. And that leaves nobody to play 4C that’s a natural C. It feels like if they did that we are creating more problems than it potentially solves.

    • Jason Gregor

      Moving McDavid to wing makes little sense to me. He is best player on the team. Centres are more free wheeling than playing wing. I don’t see how it benefits McDavid to have to start from a stand still more often in his own end. Also his hockey sense and vision is better suited for playing in the middle of the ice.

  • OilersGM

    Man our coach is so stubborn it’s unbelievable, many of us were saying Nuge should’ve got a chance with McDavid at RW in preseason.
    There is this notion that McLellan is a good coach just because he has lots of win well I would argue the Sharks were good and no matter who was there they would’ve got the wins.
    We are past 3/4 of a season and he still hasn’t figured 1 line combo yet.
    We all know the PP and PK problems and I don’t care what anyone says it’s as much on the head coach as it is on the assistants.
    I personally would get rid of the whole staff and the GM and bring in an upper comer GM like the assistant GM in Tampa and let him bring in his own coach and staff.

    • TKB2677

      So you would rather the Oilers have a just over 50 pt second line center in Nuge instead of a 70- 80 pt second line center in Drai? Nuge had 31 pts in 46 games. Pro rate it out, that’s 55 pts. Drai has 57 pts in 59 games. Pro rate that out, that’s 79 pts. Maybe Leon scores slightly less on his own but I doubt he scores less that 70 pts.
      Leon is a way better center than Nuge.

      • Gravis82

        ?? Play them all on the same line. Put strome at 2C. Find second line wingers…they can be had in free agency. 1st line wingers, not so much. And if so, for much too much.

    • NoBuBlackOPS

      Nuge is a smart two way center. But by no means is he going to be wasting his abilities as you put it by playing on the wing. Nuge playing LW gives an elite player like mcdavid the ability to take a few more risks on the ice. Knowing he can take a bit more risk at times cause he has a smart two way player to pick up some defensive slack. If mcdavid tries something risky to get a goal.

    • Threetimes

      If you take the rest of the season as time to experiment then by all means. Beyond that you cant play RNH McD and Draisaitl on the same line all season. The Oilers would be very shallow. I prefer Draisaitl on the wing and insert a power winger. Nuge plays alot of tough defensive minutes, hes very versatile in that role. Putting him on the wing takes away from the team. I dont see him even complimenting McD on the wing, McD needs a power winger who can drive the net and work in front of it… Nuge is strong in his role for the team, if you take him away from that you are removing him from his strengths and the years he’s developed into a good 2-way centerman. I like having McD with Drai on the wing, and Nuge centering the second line. McD and Draisaitl are proven together, safe to say McD, Drai and Maroon have been one of the best lines for the Oilers in a long time… with Maroon gone the Oilers need to find an affordable similar replacement for next season. Opposed to sacrificing the teams depth in the middle by moving Nuge to the wing.

  • Gravis82

    This is the easiest way to fix this team. Nuge, McDavid and Drai on the top line. Strome at 2C, JJ at 3C. Lucic at 3LW JP at 3RW. This way all we need to find second line wingers, rather than 1st.

    • crabman

      Great 1st line but nothing after. what happens when the opposition doesn’t try to go power to power but instead plays a shutdown line of forwards and defense and play a trap like game against our top guys and then throughs their talent out against or lesser players. How many tough minutes a game can our top line be expected to play 22-23. that leaves almost 2/3 of the game for the other team to feast on the rest of the Oilers.
      We need to run at least 2 lines that are dangerous offensively and 2 lines that can play responsibly and hold the fort.

  • FanBoy

    or we could have draisaitl and mcdavid play on the same line every game and have draisaitl take face offs. Leave Nuge at 2C and Lucic as his LW. Focus on finding 1 solid replacement at 4C and 1 cheap Top 6 RW


      • Natejax97

        Whatever we do…please, whoever the coach is, leave the lines together for an extended period so we can develop some chemistry…what we have done this year must be tough on the players with new linemates all the time.

      • A-co

        Instead of LUCIC on the second line what about getting him to sell hotdogs…run up and down the stairs for each home game..for road games he could load the equipment bags…tired of watching that table top hockey player swing and miss

  • Oil9744

    Totally agree and I was thinking the same thing especially when NHL network was talking about trading Nuge for Hoffman which doesn’t make much sense to me, They gotta try Nuge with Mcdavid and see if they can fill in that spot on the wing, doesn’t mean he can’t go back to centre as well sometimes, the question is if Mclellan will finally do it.

  • RJ

    My memory is slightly foggy, but I do recall Nuge and McDavid did play together on PP1 and it didn’t go well.

    That being said, I do remember all of the hype around McLellan when he was hired. He likes centre depth, and the Oilers could play centres on the wing which would give the lineup greater flexibility. For whatever reason, that thinking hasn’t been applied to Nuge.

    It’s poor cap management to be paying a 3C $6m, but it’s perfectly reasonable to pay a top pairing winger that money, and in the event of an injury, Nuge could always slide back into the centre slot.

    This makes too much sense because TM won’t do it.

  • OldOilerFan

    Just to tack onto what’s already been said so there is more emphasis: How about some media types with access to the Coach (cough, cough) ask McClellan the question about why not Nuge as a winger? Love the Nuge, anything to keep him …

    • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

      That’s a great point. Nuge’s release on his wrist shot is criminally underrated too. I remember a goal he scored against Colorado several years ago where he walked down the right wall and labelled a wrister far side that went post and in. The shot was so heavy, you could see the net wiggle slightly after the puck made contact.

  • Leo Tard

    I have never seen a coach that is so stubborn. Lucic has no business being on Connors wing. Play anybody there except Lucic. Honestly… I would rather see Auvitu on Connors wing than Lucic. Big George was right. This player needs a heart transplant. Why can the coach not see this? Recently each time tmacs face shows up on TV, I am remided of Patt Quinn. Stubborn old man who has lost sight of the game. (there is some real resemblance)

  • I could not be more in support of this idea. We have the time to test it out and Strome is really starting to look like he feels a sense of belonging. To stay positive in these times I just keep telling myself that if this season went well we would have lost Nuge and this is all part of the Hockey Gods’ plans to keep him as a part of the core that helps us succeed next season. I can dream right? Right?!

  • Rama Lama

    I agree with the premis of playing him on the top line……..but on the right wing. Nuge has a great shot and it would be more natural for him to one-time McDavids seeing eye passes.

    I doubt that this will happen……..TM has never tried this but has tried every other possible line combination in the natural universe!

  • Kingoiler78

    Terrible idea. MCD needs a finisher on his line. While RNH is having a good year, he’s never been a finisher and placing him on a line with MCD is not the answer. We need a legitimate top line winger who has the ability to finish. I thought Hoffman from Ottawa would have been a great addition at the deadline. He has a quick release and would be great on a line with MCD. Of course, with Chiarelli in charge, we will never win a deal so I guess I can dream. I think the answer is in an off season trade for and ACTUAL goal scorer. We don’t have an in house solution.

  • Kingoiler78

    Oiler fans are guilty of overvaluing our players. RNH is a good player having a good season. He’s not a star by any means. The best use of RNH now would be to bring in one of the oilers pressing needs. A top line winger for MCD would be number one on the list. The only thing that worries me is Chiarelli getting his pants pulled down again on another deal. He has no idea how to make a deal and pretty certain he wouldn’t get what RNH would be worth.