Better players have come and gone since the Edmonton Oilers called his name with the first overall selection at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, but eight seasons and 522 games since that day, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is still going about his business as he always has – quietly producing results without a lot of fanfare or drama.
Dubbed Baby Nuge by fans around here because he looked about 14 years old when the Oilers took him from the Red Deer Rebels, Nugent-Hopkins is all grown up now, just five weeks from his 26th birthday, even if he still can’t grow a proper cookie duster. His next point, perhaps against the Buffalo Sabres tonight, will give him 57 on the season, marking a career high.
While he’s playing down the marquee from Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl these days, as he did when Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle were here, nobody has produced more points since the 2011-12 season with the Oilers than the 369 RNH has put up. He’s a hockey version of a company man – the quiet guy at the corner desk who skips the water cooler gossip and gets things done.
Those numbers will change of course. McDavid has 346 points in just 270 games and will blow by RNH next season. Draisaitl, with 288 points in 334 games, will surpass him down the road. Hall, who arrived a season before Nugent-Hopkins, was certainly more dynamic. Hall had 328 points in 381 games with the Oilers (286 in 316 games since 2011-12) before being sent to New Jersey. Eberle, also a year ahead, had 382 points in 507 games (339 in 438 games since 2011-12) before being dealt to the New York Islanders.
That’s pretty select company no matter how you slice it, and on a team that’s lost way more than it has won and only made the playoffs once, 2017, during his time in Edmonton. In eight seasons, RNH has played for six coaches (seven if you count the handful of games Craig MacTavish worked in the transition from Dallas Eakins to Todd Nelson).
Something of a power-play specialist in the WHL with Red Deer, the unassuming Nugent-Hopkins has morphed into a reliable, two-way centre who can spot in on the wing with McDavid, be productive on the power play and kill penalties. He’s as close to a plug-and-play guy as you’ll find. He hasn’t had a coach go off on him on the bench over spilled water. There’s been no whispers about what happens away from the rink.
“If he’s not the most underrated, he’s one of the most underrated players in the league,” Sam Gagner said of Nugent-Hopkins after a 3-2 shootout loss to the Arizona Coyotes last month. “He’s played a lot of hard minutes, and he’s asked to sacrifice offence a lot. This year he’s having a really good year offensively. He just keeps coming to work, and doing his job.”
On that particular night, with McDavid out of the line-up with the flu, Nugent-Hopkins scored a goal, worked the power play and the PK and played 23:15. “I’m going to be sticking with it,” RNH told Mark Spector of Sportsnet with a quote that pretty much sums up his time in Edmonton.
“I’m going to keep doing this until the end of the season. We’re going to keep working, and find our way back into the playoff race. We know we have to string some together, obviously. We know that. But there’s not going to be any shortage of work ethic for the rest of the year.”
We’ve come to expect nothing less.
“He just keeps fighting,” said Gagner. “He’s just one of those guys who never complains, continues to do his job, and just gets better. He is very underappreciated.”
WHILE I’M AT IT
Every player earning a living in the NHL should take a moment today to tip their cap to Ted Lindsay, who has passed away at the age of 93. As tenacious as he was on the ice, a winger who backed down from no one despite standing just five-foot-six, Lindsay was every bit as determined in leading the charge in the movement that would form the NHLPA.
A four-time Stanley Cup champion with the Detroit Red Wings and a nine-time all-star who played on the famed Production Line with Gordie Howe and Sid Abel, Lindsay was inducted into the HHOF in 1966. A year later, the NHLPA, thanks in large part to Lindsay, was ratified as a labor organization. He was the first president.
Lindsay was in his 70’s the first time I met him at Joe Louis Arena, where he seemed to be a fixture. Tough as nails and mean as hell on the ice – I couldn’t get over how diminutive he was — Lindsay was a gentleman off it. I feel blessed to have met this great man. Condolences to the Lindsay family.