Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored 24 goals for the second time in his career, but he matched his career-high in only 62 games compared to playing 76 games in 2015. Nugent-Hopkins played the majority of the season at centre, but his final 13 games were comfortably on Connor McDavid’s left wing.
I believe Nugent-Hopkins will be a better winger than a centre. He is more than capable of playing centre, but the down low battles, against bigger centres, is very taxing and with his slight build I think he will be more productive playing on the wing.
Last year he struggled offensively. He admitted he was thinking about defence too much and wasn’t taking any offensive risks.
“He wants to win and he was willing to sacrifice offence, which is great, but now we need him to remain responsible defensively, but add some offence,” head coach Todd McLellan said last summer. “I think me telling him it is okay to take a few chances and risks will help him. Often a player just needs to hear it,” continued McLellan.
The coach was correct.
“It helped hearing it from Todd. I had lost a bit of my offensive confidence. I wasn’t attacking when I should have been,” Nugent-Hopkins said earlier this season, and he continued to shoot, and score, from areas he wasn’t shooting from last year.
Nugent-Hopkins produced 17-16-33 in 49 games playing centre. He was on pace for 55 points and a career-best 28 goals had he remained healthy. He was having a solid year, but when he was paired with McDavid his offence got even better.
In 13 games he scored seven goals and 15 points. He was a stellar +14 in those games. I know +/- isn’t the best stat, but GF/GA ratio is very accurate for teams and considering Nugent-Hopkins has been a minus 12, 12, 9 and 10 the past four seasons, him finishing the year at +10 is a positive. He was -4 in his first 49 games and +14 in his last 13. He and McDavid were very productive as a duo, and they scored way more than they gave up.
“Individually it’s nice, it does help the confidence a little bit. I wanted to be a little more explosive offensively this season. I felt at most times I did that but in the end, personally I guess it is nice but when you have a season team wise like this it’s disappointing. Hopefully next season we as a team are successful and I can build on what I did individually,” he said.
I recognize 13 games is a very small sample size, but Nugent-Hopkins has very good natural offensive instincts, a quick and accurate release and, most importantly, he sees and thinks the game well enough to succeed with McDavid.
LEARN TO PLAY WING
He has only played 13 games on the wing and his focus this summer will be working on things he’s never had to work on before.
“There are different drills that I can one hundred percent work on in the summer. It is a different position, rims and stuff like that have been the challenge for me. Learning to feel the pinch and being able to cut them off. There are a lot of little things on the boards I need to improve on if I’m going to be a winger. It is definitely something where it’s going to be nice to have the summer — whether or not I’m actually going to be a winger or not — it’s now something that now I can start working on that stuff and add that as part of my game,” Nugent-Hopkins explained.
He should go into the summer expecting to play wing next season, so he can spend his time working on picking up the puck off the wall (rims) and improving his timing on how to defend pinching defencemen.
Last summer Todd McLellan told him to rediscover his offensive creativity and mindset, and to his credit, Nugent-Hopkins did. It would be wise if McLellan told him to plan to play left wing.
I asked Nugent-Hopkins if knowing where he’d play would be a benefit to his off-season training and mindset.
“Well, I mean one way or the other it would be nice to know. Obviously I don’t think they necessarily can do that, it doesn’t always work out like that on their end. I don’t know if they will be able to. If they say, ‘hey we might go with this to start the season,’ then I know I can work on different things on the ice. You get it your head so you have a little different mentality, since I’ve been a centre basically my whole life. But I don’t think that the transition was too hard, and Connor made it a little easier for sure, but it was pretty good to finish the season and I got used to it pretty quick. I enjoyed playing the wing,” replied Nugent-Hopkins
His last words are crucial. He isn’t opposed to the switch. I remember Andrew Cogliano explaining to me how at first he was opposed to moving to the wing when coaches asked him to. But once he finally accepted it, he actually became a better winger than centre. “I’ve learned I’m a more effective winger, and I can use my speed more, because I’m freed up defensively. It is less tiring playing wing and it works better for my size,” he told me a few years ago.
I believe McDavid and Leon Draisaitl as the top-two centres is the best strategy for the Oilers. I understand they might switch RNH and Draisaitl now and again, but the exit-meeting message to RNH should have been plan to be a left winger
PLAYING MORE WING
Nugent-Hopkins is going to the World Championships and head coach Bill Peters would be wise to play him with McDavid. I’d bet Oilers head coach Todd McLellan will text his good friend, Peters, and inform him that is a good duo, and also that playing RNH there would help McLellan. Coaches talk all the time, and I’m sure Peters doesn’t need a text for him to figure out the RNH/McDavid combo is a good one, but it will give him some more time learning the subtle nuances of playing the wing.
Nugent-Hopkins is excited to keep playing.
“I made it through the year with nothing too serious, my groin should be healed up in a few weeks so I’m looking forward to it. (He has a slight groin pull). It’s been a few years since I’ve been to one of them. Anytime you can represent Canada it’s obviously an honour and a great experience. I’m looking forward to it and hopefully I’ll have a good time over there,” he said.
Finishing the season with a World Championship or a medal, should make his summer more enjoyable, especially after this season.
Would he classify this as his most disappointing season with the Oilers?
“In some ways, just because of the expectations that we had, outside expectations and inside expectations. We know we are a good team and we showed it at times, we beat some really good teams, but it is disappointing we didn’t string it together enough. It seemed like there were points early in the season where things didn’t bounce our way, maybe our response wasn’t good enough where as last year we really, really pushed after we got down one goal or two goals. It really didn’t matter, we played the same way and pushed even harder, clawed our way back into a lot of games that way. It’s something we can learn from, but everyone needs to have a good summer and come back fresh,” said Nugent-Hopkins.
The team must be better, including management and coaching, and their message to Nugent-Hopkins should have been, “Be prepared to excel playing left wing.”
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