Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Nugent-Hopkins: Focus on Being a Winger

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.

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“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.

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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.

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Edmonton Oilers forwards Connor McDavid (97) and forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) in discussion at center ice. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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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

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Nov 28, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) celebrates his overtime goal against the Arizona Coyotes at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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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.”

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • ubermiguel

    One small good thing to come out of this season: the discovery our very good centre could become an elite left-winger who compliments McDavid perfectly.

  • VK63

    The McDavid and Nuge pairing were pretty bad in their own zone. Sustained minutes of the Benny Hill theme and for me that was very disconcerting. Sure they outscored their errors, but not by much.

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    Similar to Joe Pavelski I think Nuge should move to the wing and just stay along side McDavid. If he can become a 30/30 guy he can cash in big next contact !

    • Natejax97

      If Nuge plays with McDavid all year next year, 30/30 would be a disappointment. Rattie could get 30/30 with McDavid, Nuge could easily be a PPG player! And that is just realistic expectations. They are just getting started.

      • crabman

        I think ppg for Nuge is possible. But 35/45 is very high expectations. This year the top end scoring was way up with 21 players scoring 80 or more points. In comparison the previous 3 seasons saw 7, 5, and 5 80 point players. Add to that Nuge plays an average of 70 games per season. He played a full 82 last year, for the 1st time ever, and 80 games 1 other time. Not saying center should leave him less taxes physically so he could very well play more next year but I wouldn’t count on more than 75 games. There is also a very real chance that if the team picks up a decent right shot winger that player may end up on the 1pp and Nuge could find himself leading the 2pp with less minutes and less skilled players. I think a reasonable expectation for Nuge next year would be 60-65 points. I full year healthy and on McDavid’s wing the entire season and a regular on the top pp and he could get up to 90 but expecting a career high 56 to jump to 80 might be setting yourself up for disappointment.

      • crabman

        Of the Oilers decide to keep that top line together and Rattie keeps producing the way he is that will be one of the league’s best value contracts. He would also score on the 50-55 point range. I think that is on the very high end. Even a full year with McDavid anything over 25g and 20a would be an amazing season. Maroon’s season last year is a great example. McDavid and Draisaitl were the highest scoring duo in the league and both top 10 in scoring. Maroon had a great season as the 3rd wheel and had 27g 15a for 42 points. He didn’t get 1pp time and neither would Rattie. And most of the work and point collecting would be done by his linemates, McDavid and Nuge. 40-45 points, mostly at evens, would be great production from the 3rd wheel.

  • TKB2677

    I wasn’t good enough to play high level hockey and when I did play hockey, I was a dman but I don’t get why moving from center to wing should be much of an adjustment at all. Nuge has played center in the NHL for a long time and was able to do a decent job at it. Centers usually have WAY more responsibilities than wingers so I can’t see it being a big deal.

    • Hemmercules

      I think its hard to turn off the mentality of being a center sometimes when you switch to wing. Your positioning is different at different times. Face-offs specifically I think would be weird. The centers job on the face-off is to pass the puck the majority of the time, now on wing its your job to get it. For an NHL player the adjustment Im sure is a lot quicker but its still there.

      • Glencontrolurstik

        Biggest adjustment is along the boards & corners.
        Also, dealing with defencemen. Cutting off angles defensively is also a big part of it. The latter is coming quite easy for Nuge, as he has always been good defensively.
        Shooting is shooting, just some different angles on the wing.

  • Dr. Merkwurdigliebe

    The solution was staring the Oilers in the face all season, but they were blinded by Pat Maroon’s career year in 2017 playing LW with McD. Nuge has too much talent to be a 3rd line centre. Looking forward to seeing what Nugey can do in a full season playing with McDavey. 30 goals would be ideal. Don’t you dare trade him Chia!!

  • GK1980

    Nuge will need to play both as well as Drai. Todd can move both around depending on how the game is going or how each player is playing. Nuge will be traded for beans anyways so it doesn’t matter.

  • Soccer Steve

    RNH becoming McDavid’s winger fell in Chiarelli’s lap.

    Now he NEEDS a home run (trading Lucic, getting an A+ d-man, finding an elite scoring winger, etc.), as well as 4-5 complimentary pieces in the mold of the Maroon steal from Anaheim, and finally having a perfect draft (with a bit of luck in the lottery, not that we deserve it!).

    It’s going to be extremely difficult and highly unlikely he succeeds. But his job must be on the line and with it his future in the NHL, because no one will hire him again.

    • TKB2677

      I disagree that Nuge being a winger fell in Chia’s lap. Nuge is a good player so if you ever want to keep him on your team at 6 mill, he has to play in your top 6. He’s not a better center than McDavid and with all due respect to Nuge, he’s not as good of a center as Leon. He may have more experience than Leon but Leon is already a superior faceoff guy and he scores more points at the position. So if he can’t play center in your top 6 and at 6 mill, you can’t afford to have him as your 3rd line center, there is no choice but to play him at wing. The problem was that McLellan clearly didn’t clue in on what was the blatantly obvious.

  • I agree with this article 100% however remember centers have higher trade value then again tough market, acquisition costs are high. I also love trading former #1 picks, especially #1 overall. Tough summer ahead, what will I do?…

  • KennyG

    Lets say the team returns to old form and plays like 2 seasons ago. If that were to happen Id say Connor 150pts and Nuge 102 on his wing. Oh ya and we win the lotto draft and the cup the same year. 2018-19 season Bring it on!!

  • polarcap

    Speaking of changed roles. Assuming that the oil are stuck with the Lucic contract. As we have seen expectations are a prescription for failure. Lucic must adjust to a bottom 6 role. He is not going to become a B. Wheeler, or a Kopitar. He is a Hendricks type. He has to learn to play as a bottom 6 player. Rushing to stand in front of the net, or taking runs a players willy nilly when it puts you out of position, puts your team a man down. Position play, aggressive board work is hard but important work. Thinking Lucic is going to put the last half of the season behind will defer decision on making a long term commitment to a real solution.