At various times this season, some fans opined it made sense to have Edmonton Oilers’ GM Pete Chiarelli trade Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and his $6-million salary to address holes in the roster. Others insisted that coach Todd McLellan should play him on the wing alongside Connor McDavid rather than have him languish as an overpaid and under-utilized third-line centre.
Those in latter group are crowing today, as they should, because if rolling the dice and letting Chiarelli send away the talented RNH for God-knows-who wasn’t a dim idea the moment it was hatched, it’s obvious it is now the way RNH has looked playing the left wall with No. 97 and, of late, Ty Rattie. The latest example was a 6-2 waxing of the Ottawa Senators Thursday.
Nugent-Hopkins scored a goal and added two assists for a three-point night — McDavid had 2-2-4 and Rattie 1-1-2 — and he now has tallied 4-5-9 in the seven games he’s played as a wingman for the soon to be two-time Art Ross Trophy winner. If Chiarelli and McLellan are thinking straight, you can forget any talk of moving RNH for something else and write him in with ink as McDavid’s left winger for next season.
While it’s impossible to justify paying a third-line centre $6 million a season when you’ve already got a third-line winger making that much lettuce in Milan Lucic — which was the case when McLellan was running McDavid as his first line pivotman, Leon Draisaitl as his second and RNH as his third — Nugent-Hopkins has looked like money in the bank on LW with his captain. It’s like Nuge was born there.
LOOKS LIKE A FIT
I can understand if some might think I’m rushing to judgment based on seven games, but I don’t think so. RNH has hockey IQ. He’s smart with the puck, he makes plays and he knows where to go and when to be there. That holds true whether you’re talking about playing down the middle or on the wing. There are, of course, different demands playing each position, but smart players are smart players and RNH is most certainly that. He’s adjusted in a blink.
Nugent-Hopkins, who turns 25 next month, has tallied 21-21-42 in just 56 games. Whether you want to call it chemistry or something else — I tend to think it’s the ability to process the game at the same level more than anything else — RNH has the attributes to play with McDavid. That’s not going to change. With what we’ve seen from RNH over seven seasons, not just seven games, I think it would be foolish to dismiss what we’re seeing as just a hot streak.
From where I sit, the Captain Obvious play is to go into the off-season treating Nugent-Hopkins and McDavid as a duo. While Rattie has impressed in the looks he’s had on the line, he doesn’t have the same track record and you can’t count on what we’re seeing from him right now lasting. Maybe it does, or maybe the former Portland junior is just keeping the spot warm for Jesse Puljujarvi. We don’t know yet.
If I’m McLellan, Draisaitl stays right where he is as my second-line centre. If I’m Chiarelli, I’m making sure this off-season that I’ve got enough help for Leon on both sides, or at the very least, that he’s got a running mate, be it left side or right side. If that’s somebody on the roster, fine. More than likely, given the lack of depth we’ve seen on the walls, it’ll mean adding somebody. Either way, none of what Chiarelli needs to do this summer has anything to do with sending away Nugent-Hopkins.
MOVE ASIDE, COMING THROUGH
With his four-point night against the Senators, McDavid now has 36-58-94, leaving him one back of Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov atop the NHL scoring race. As was the case last season, McDavid has been lighting it up down the stretch. His 36 goals is a career high. Is there anybody betting against him getting 100 points for the second time and hitting 40 goals for the first time? Not me.
Without a pure finisher to rely on, McDavid has taken it upon himself to shoot more. Not a lot more, but more. He had five shots against the Senators and he now has 249 on the season. McDavid is averaging 3.36 shots per game with a shooting percentage of 14.5 Last season, when he had 30 goals, he had 251 shots (3.06 per game), connecting at a 12.0 per cent clip.
I understand — although I don’t agree with — the lament by some people that Puljujarvi isn’t getting the sugar time looks that other players are from McLellan, but I think the idea that the big Finn is being held back or somehow screwed over by the Oilers is way overblown. The most reasonable take I’ve heard comes from former Oiler player and coach Craig Simpson. You can read that here. Puljujarvi is going to be a top-six forward for the Oilers and a fixture on the power play down the road. He isn’t, and doesn’t have to be, that now.
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