Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Year in Review: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might have found a new niche

This is one part of a player-by-player Year in Review series we’ll be doing over the next couple months as we look back on the 2017-18 Edmonton Oilers season. 

2017-18 Edmonton Oilers No. 93: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

GP: 62 – G: 24, A: 24, PTS: 48

I certainly wouldn’t suggest Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is anywhere near a bust, but if at this time last year you figured he was a little underwhelming for a first-overall pick, you wouldn’t be completely offside.

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Nugent-Hopkins was selected first overall by the Oilers in 2011 after a 106-point season with the Red Deer Rebels. His on-ice vision, which was viewed as his best asset, was compared to that of Wayne Gretzky. The expectations were already massive, then Nugent-Hopkins went out and scored 52 points in 62 games on a horrendous Oilers team as a baby-faced 18-year-old, which sped the hype train up.

Fast forward to 2016-17 and Nugent-Hopkins had largely disappeared in the shadow of Connor McDavid, who won the Hart and Art Ross Trophy in his sophomore season, and Leon Draisaitl, who had emerged as a star in his own right. Six years into his NHL career, RNH was coming off a 43-point season and hadn’t come anywhere near reproducing the production he had during his rookie campaign.

He was also coming off a playoff run in which he put up zero goals and four assists in 13 games. A similar two-point playoff showing from long-time teammate Jordan Eberle ultimately played a role in him being run out of town. It seemed for a hot minute there that RNH would join Eberle and Taylor Hall as the key members of Oil Change 2.0 to get sent packing to fill other needs on the team.

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Trade Options, Goalie Carousel Gets Started And More

But Nugent-Hopkins stuck around. At the very least he was a dependable, two-way centre who played a solid defensive game. Good centres in the NHL are hard to come by, so the Oilers stuck by their former first-overall pick.

Nugent-Hopkins went on to reward the team with what was likely his best season since his rookie year. He posted 24 goals and 24 assists in 62 games, which represented a tie for career-high in goals, and his best point-per-game pace (0.77) since his rookie season (0.84). If not for an injury in mid-January, Nugent-Hopkins certainly would have surpassed his career-high in points of 56 set in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

The interesting thing about Nugent-Hopkins’ season, though, is how he might have found himself a brand new niche on the team. When Patrick Maroon was dealt to New Jersey at the trade deadline, a spot opened up on the left of Connor McDavid. Milan Lucic hasn’t thrived in that role at all during the season, so Todd McLellan tried something new and threw Nugent-Hopkins out there with McDavid. The two played 13 games together and Nugent-Hopkins recorded 15 points.

McNuge was a thing fans wanted for quite some time. Todd McLellan, who had a history of navigating lineups with an abundance of centres in Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, and Joe Pavelski during his heyday with the San Jose Sharks, used Nugent-Hopkins as a winger with Nathan MacKinnon during the World Cup of Hockey in 2016. Nugent-Hopkins also ended up playing wing with McDavid this spring at the World Hockey Championships in which he recorded eight points in 10 games.

When it finally happened, it was a treat to watch. Nugent-Hopkins is one of few players who can think the game at the same level as Connor McDavid and what the two were able to create in the offensive zone was incredible.

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Digging a little further into the numbers, the duo of McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins also posted a 65.4 Goals For percentage during their 207:06 minutes together at even strength. I mean, it’s known that a bag of potatoes could look good next to Connor McDavid, but that 65.4 GF% McDavid produced with RNH was the best percentage he had with any Oilers forward he played with for at least 100 minutes at even strength.

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It certainly wouldn’t be shocking if Nugent-Hopkins was pencilled in as McDavid’s left winger heading into the 2018-19 season. Like I said earlier, McLellan frequently played centres together on lines during his time in San Jose, so that isn’t something that’s going to hold RNH back here. If Nugent-Hopkins plays a healthy season alongside McDavid, there’s a very, very good chance we’re going to finally see him reach the offensive production we expected back when he was selected first overall.

Regardless of how it shakes out next season, becoming a player who can thrive as both a solid second-line centre and a dynamic top-line winger who has chemistry with the game’s best player is certainly a good thing.


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  • OriginalPouzar

    What is a bit concerning is that, while their goal share are 5 on 5 if very good, Nuge and Connor’s possession metrics are closer to the 50% level. With that said, the due definitely have some chemistry and Nuge can think the game on a high level like Connor.

    There is no doubt that Nuge’s offence will spike when playing with McDavid but the question is how much time will the two spend together.

    Of course if there is an injury to McDavid, Leon or Strome, Nuge is likely to shift back to the middle (a great option).

    With that said, I think most Oiler fans are comfortable that Nuge will start the season on McDavid’s left wing. It seems Rattie has the inside track on the right side, however, I don’t imagine he will actually stay there for very long – he is a poor defensive player and not a great skater and he was an absolute drag on McDavid when Nuge wasn’t paired with them.

    Here is hoping that Puljujarvi or Yamamoto can with a top 6 winger job on merit.

    A Nuge/McDavid/Puljujarvi (Yamamoto) line is pretty sexy.

    • OriginalPouzar

      Its true though. Without Nuge, McDavid and Rattie got killed. They gave up 5 goals and scored zero in 30 minutes and their possession metrics were around 30%.

      They were awful together without Nuge.

      Rattie is not a great skater and he is quite poor without the puck and in the defensive zone – there is a reason he hasn’t stuck in the NHL yet.

      On the other hand, Rattie is smart offensively and he’s got skill – he seemed to know how to give McDavid the proper space and to find the open space himself. With that said, if he can’t improve away from the puck and the line leaks scoring chances (which they did), he won’t stick there.

  • lee

    The big question is can the Nuge stay healthy?
    If he can, I think 80 plus points are in the cards.

    Also hoping that the coach spends less time throwing everyone in the blender. Quite a few players have mentioned this so you have to believe they are not big fans of this.

    If the P.P is much better a lot of Oilers are going to have much better stats than last season.

  • ubermiguel

    Nuge was so busy trying to prevent the team from bleeding goals for a few years there he forgot about the offence. He’s smart, can pass and has a sneaky shot. He and McDavid together could be something really terrifying for the rest of the league for a few years.

    • Just facts

      Exactly. Even with having to sacrifice offense to cover for his less responsible teammates, Nuge has the 3rd most points and 6th highest points per game of his draft class. I have no doubt had he been able to focus on offense like most of his peers at the top of the list he would have significantly more points.

  • Redbird62

    I think everyone agrees that the McNuge duo was dynamic in the offensive zone but the team seemed to run around a bit in the defensive zone. They still outscored their opponents, but for consistent success, they will need to clean up the play in their own end. I am not sure how much of that is because McNuge needs a little more time to get used to each other in terms of who has what defensive responsibilities, particularly since Nuge had not played much wing before, or because their two most common wingers were Rattie and Aberg, two players short on NHL experience. In the offensive zone, the duo can free wheel and create, but in the defensive zone, a structure needs to be adhered to. I would suspect in camp, they will spend more time making sure they are all on the same page in the defensive zone and will be better to start the season.

  • Redbird62

    In regards to Rattie being a drag on McDavid without Nuge, according to Naturalstattrick, that was a 30 minute sample size, and the winger that replaced Nuge for 25 minutes of that was Draisaitl. When McDavid and Drai are together 5 on 5, they probably need a more experienced winger who knows the NHL defensive game, or maybe Drai doesn’t fit well on the left side.

  • Bills Bills

    People talk and talk about the TMac blender. But if the players play and contribute on their individual lines, then there won’t be a need to change things up. He’s not doing it out of boredom. He’s doing it when the team isn’t playing well. This isn’t a chicken and egg thing either. When the team doesn’t play well for a period of time, things change.

  • toprightcorner

    I blame the lack of offensive breakout for Nuge at the feet of past coaching staffs. Last year was the first time that any coach told Nuge to think about offense. After his rookie season, every coach told Nuge to focus solely on defense and being the good little boy Nuge is, that’s what he did. Last year was the first time we seen any of the offensive vision that he showed in his rookie season. I expect him to take another step forward offensively and if he plays the entire season on McDavids wing, he sould be a shoe in for 30 goals and 65 points. If that line has someone at RW that can keep up with them and score 20+ goals, Nuge could easily get 75 points.

    As a winger, Nuge will not have the same defensive responsibilities and will not be thinking defense first and offence only if it falls in his lap. This year we will all sea the offensive skills little Nugey possesses earning him the 1st over all pick.