Ryan Nugent-Hopkins started his first game on Connor McDavid’s left wing on Saturday, and if the Oilers are wise it will the first of many. The Oilers need to replace Patrick Maroon on the left wing, and instead of overpaying in free agency, the best decision will be to slot Nugent-Hopkins in the left wing spot.
They need his skill in the top six, but they also have a better third line centre on the team now in Ryan Strome.
Strome isn’t a better overall centre than Nugent-Hopkins, but he is a better fit as a third line centre.
I’m still a bit surprised how many people still want the Oilers to run three centres. It is people I often agree with on many things, but not on this one. Dustin Nielson, Black Dog Pat, Woodguy and many others have often suggested these three should be down the middle. I completely understand the theory behind it, but take a moment to look at some numbers and see if running McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins down the middle will ultimately help the Oilers.
Strome has 24 EV points this season, and 21 of them are at 5×5. He has put up pretty good numbers at EV, especially when you realize he’s had numerous different linemates, and not ones who are big point producers. Strome has played 814 5×5 minutes and here are his most common linemates.
Jujhar Khaira: 255 minutes. He has scored 9-6-15 at 5×5 this year. (On ice together for eleven goals)
Draisaitl: 187 minutes. He has 11-27-28 at 5×5. (On ice together for nine goals)
Drake Caggiula: 174 minutes. Caggiula has scored 6-5-11 (On ice for four goals).
Mike Cammalleri: 160 minutes. He has 2-16-18 (On ice for three goals).
Jesse Puljujarvi: 136 minutes. He scored 9-6-15 (On ice for eight goals).
Anton Slepyshev: 103 minutes. He has scored 5-5-10 at 5×5. (On ice together for two goals).
Patrick Maroon: 102 minutes. He has 13-12-25 at 5×5 (On ice for five goals).
He’s played only 50 minutes with McDavid. He played more with 12 other forwards including Jussi Jokinen. So you can’t say Strome has inflated his EV points totals by playing with McDavid.
Strome currently has a $2.5 Million cap hit and he made $3 million this season. He is an RFA this summer and likely will have a new contract between $2.5-$3 million for next season.
RNH DOWN THE MIDDLE
Here are three seasons of RNH where he played a similar amount of games as Strome this year. I am presuming Strome finishes the season and will play close to 82 games and similar EV minutes as RNH in these three seasons. I didn’t use years where he missed a lot of time, only because prorating numbers isn’t exact numbers, only projections.
2013/2014: Nugent-Hopkins played 1,162 5×5 minutes, he scored 31 points and had a 44.92 CF%. He had 36 at EV. His most common linemates:
Jordan Eberle: 757 minutes. Eberle scored 17-21-38 at 5×5 (They were on the ice together for 35 goals).
Taylor Hall: 665 minutes. Hall scored 16-37-53 (On for 29 goals together).
David Perron: 268 minutes: 17-20-37 (On ice for 13 goals).
Nail Yakupov: 218 minutes: 7-11-18 (On for eight goals).
Ales Hemsky: 115 minutes: 7-8-15. He was traded to Ottawa at deadline. (On for four goals together).
2014/2015: Nugent-Hopkins played 1,139 5×5 minutes, he scored 37 points and had a 49. 86CF%. He had 34 at EV. His most common linemates:
Eberle: 894 minutes. Eberle scored 18-23-41 at 5×5 that season. (They were on ice for 45 goals).
Hall: 500 minutes. Hall scored 7-19-26. He was injured and missed 30 games. (On ice for 21 goals).
Benoit Pouliot: 366 minutes. 13-11-24 (On ice for 20 goals).
Teddy Purcell: 221 minutes. 6-14-20 (On ice for seven goals).
Yakupov: 62 minutes: 9-12-21 (on ice for one goal).
2016/2017: RNH played 1,079 minutes at 5×5, scored 27 points and had a 49.29 CF%. He had 32 EV points and his most common linemates:
Eberle: 636 minutes. Eberle scored 14-19-33 at 5×5 that season. (They were on for 22 goals together)
Milan Lucic: 434 minutes. 10-13-23 (14 goals together)
Pouliot: 331 minutes. 8-6-14 (10 goals together)
Zack Kassian: 217 minutes. 7-17-24 (seven goals together)
Patrick Maroon: 213 minutes. 24-11-35 (on for nine goals together).
Keep in mind RNH played tougher minutes in 2014 and 2015. He was the first line centre, and while he played mainly with offensively gifted linemates, Eberle and Hall, he also faced better players on average.
But look at last season. RNH scored 27 points at 5×5 in 1,079 minutes. Strome has 21 in 814 minutes so far this season. Strome has also not had the luxury of even one consistent linemate. I don’t expect trios to stick together very often in today’s game, but usually we see a duo. Building continuity and chemistry can help, but Strome has proven it isn’t necessary to be a competent point producer.
Strome has looked much more effective since he started playing centre regularly. I wasn’t sure he could be this effective early in the season, but he’s proved me wrong. Right now, he is a solid third line centre.
The other factor we need to consider is salary.
If you run McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins down the middle, that is $27 million. You don’t have a lot of cap space to go out and find competent wingers for all three lines. If Strome can produce 25 points at 5×5 and cost $3 million, he is a great fit for the team. Why play RNH at centre on a third line, pay him $6 million, when he hasn’t shown he will outscore Strome at EV by a significant enough margin to make it cost effective?
I’d rather have RNH on the wing in the top-six, where he still can rotate defensive responsibilities with McDavid and is likely to produce more points than we’ve seen from him as a centre.
Playing RNH on the wing in the top-six gives him a better opportunity to produce the points you’d expect from a $6 million player, and having Strome as the third line centre isn’t much of a drop off offensively. And with McDavid and Draisaitl running as 1C and 2C, Strome won’t have to face elite competition very often. He should be able to produce similar to what he has this season, and I’m not worried about his defensive play.
From a skill standpoint and a production-to-cap-space ratio, it makes the most sense to play RNH on the wing and Strome as the third line centre.