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