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.
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.
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.
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.
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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