Playing with Connor McDavid is what every Oilers forward wants, but producing points and learning how to be productive with him isn’t as easy as some think. Not everyone can produce when playing with McDavid. Patrick Maroon learned where to go and when to go to spots to ensure McDavid could get him the puck. He had success with McDavid despite not being the fleetest of foot. Leon Draisaitl and McDavid were dynamic, despite their differences. McDavid loves to attack with speed, while Draisaitl prefers to slow the game down at times. They were the most prolific duo in the NHL last season.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been McDavid’s teammate for three years, but he centred his own line and watched McDavid’s brilliance from the bench. That changed on Saturday, and for the past three games Nugent-Hopkins has lined up McDavid’s left wing. So far, they have looked good.
In the past three games, one thing that has stood out for me is their ability to read off one another, especially on those short, leading passes, where they have sprung each other for breakaways. They haven’t scored on those chances yet — McDavid was stopped in Calgary, while Nugent-Hopkins didn’t bury his breakaway last night — but in each of the past three games, they have read off each other’s instincts when one has the puck in the middle of the ice just outside the blueline and the other has darted up the middle and received a perfectly timed and placed pass.
They have similar instincts.
“I feel like it has clicked well so far,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “Maybe it is just because it is Connor and he always finds ways to get chances and opportunities, but I feel we have read off each other very well. We have been teammates for three years, but haven’t been on the same line so we are still getting a taste of what each other can do. I think we see the game fairly similar. Obviously, he does things nobody else in the league can do, but as far as reading the play, we see it similar.
“In the first period against Minnesota, it took a couple shifts to get into it, but after that I think we have found our chemistry and I think it will only get better,” continued Nugent-Hopkins.
They have created many chances, but at EV they haven’t capitalized on as many as they’d like. They have combined for two goals and four assists in three games, while Pontus Aberg has chipped in with one assist. The trio has 18 shots in three games, but haven’t finished many of their best chances.
“I probably should have just one-timed it. When it hit my stick it bobbled a bit and I couldn’t get the catch and release I was hoping for,” explained Nugent-Hopkins on missing a scoring chance in the third period last night.
“Playing with him, I’m always expecting the puck. Even when the play is almost dead he will find a way to make the extra play. I’ve learned over the past few games you can’t take your eye off him and be ready for the puck,” Nugent-Hopkins explained.
He admitted he needs to be on alert all the time. McDavid makes plays like no one he’s played with before. It will take some time to adjust, and if you look at their analytics through three games you can see they have room to grow.
** SF is shots for, SCF is scoring chances for and GF is goals for***
Game CF-CA FF-FA SF-SA SCF-SCA GF-GA
Minnesota 16-23 11-16 9-12 8-18 0-0
Calgary 18-10 13-9 8-5 8-6 0-0
San Jose 12-16 9-14 8-8 5-8 2-0
The did connect for two goals versus Minnesota, but because RNH had changed on the fly after passing to McDavid Natural Stat Trick doesn’t count it as a 5×5 goal. These are small details of analytics that need to be improved and I’d also like to see who tracks their scoring chances, because I often disagree with the numbers, but I digress. Their other goal was an empty net tally.
MOVE TO WING
The other factor to remember is Nugent-Hopkins is playing wing for the first time in his NHL career, and while the overall defensive responsibilities of a winger are easier than a centre, there are still challenges moving to the wing that Nugent-Hopkins hasn’t encountered.
“It is different. It is easier, but it is harder. Those pucks come ringing around the boards on you (as a winger) fast and there is a lot less you can do with it. As a centreman you have more options. You have backhand, you have the forehand, you have back pass, but as a winger you have to make that play and make it instantly. There is often a defender closing down on you and everyone is so good at reloading and pinching you off, especially San Jose who are known for that. At times I struggled with that and I still need to get more comfortable making those plays on the wall. I have a new respect for all the wingers out there.
“As for the overall transition from centre to the wing, I felt pretty good. We are pretty good at reading each other for when I’m going low first (in the D zone) or him and I’m trying to make it a little easier for him defensively,” answered Nugent-Hopkins.
Aberg hasn’t looked out of place, but he hasn’t shown much finish or scoring prowess yet. I’m sure it is very intimidating for him to play with those two, especially McDavid, and as we saw with Maroon-McDavid-Draisaitl last season, it is unlikely all three put up big numbers. Aberg mains focus is to be good defensively, but if he doesn’t start to make more plays or finish off the odd pass, I’m not sure how long he will stay there.
I’d give him more than three games though, and I would surely keep Nugent-Hopkins on McDavid’s for the remainder of the season and give them more opportunities to enhance their chemistry and production.
So far they have played well — not great, but very solid — and without question they have the potential to become more lethal offensively.
****I also would keep Puljujarvi with Draisaitl. The Oilers will need two solid lines, or duos, to be competitive so I’d like to see more of #98 and #29 together.**