Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is coming off his best regular season since entering the league in 2011. Now come playoff time, he’ll get ready for the first real shot at a deep playoff run in his career.
The former 1st overall pick has now played himself into the best situation of his career, gearing up to start on the top line alongside Connor McDavid according to multiple reports from training camp. The potential move is a bit of a surprise considering the success Nugent-Hopkins had playing with Leon Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto during the second half of the season.
In 65 games this season, the Baby-Faced Assassin put up 61 points and was on pace for 77 if the season hadn’t been paused due to COVID-19. Since January 1, the 27-year-old has scored the fifth-most points in the league with 37 points since the start of the new year.
That’s only behind teammate Leon Draisaitl (48 points in 29 games), Mika Zibanejad (44 points in 31 games), Nikita Kucherov (44 points in 31 games), and Artemi Panarin (40 points in 30 games). Nugent-Hopkins actually produced some of the best offensive numbers of his career. His 0.94 points-per-game was the highest of his career and a significant jump from his career average of 0.73 PPG.
The last time the Oilers were in the postseason in 2017, Nugent-Hopkins struggled to produce, only contributing 4 assists in 13 games. This time around, he’ll be looking to prove that he’s more than the steady two-way player he’s developed into, but a true, definitive, impact player that can win games for his team. Playing alongside McDavid might be the stepping stone that puts him there.
Against the Blackhawks, Nugent-Hopkins will be in the spotlight. Playing with McDavid is a massive blessing for most players, but so far in their careers, the two haven’t had a ton of success alongside one another in Edmonton. Internationally, the two have suited up for Team Canada at the World Championships. In theory, RNH with McDavid makes a ton of sense. A solid two-way veteran is the type of player that would compliment the generational talent of McDavid. Add in Zack Kassian’s grit, and this combo could turn out to be a very fun concoction.
Chicago’s focus will be on McDavid. There’s no doubt about it. Even though Draisaitl took the Art Ross and is up for the Hart this season, McDavid is the best player on this team. Playing with the Oilers captain might elevate the offensive talent that Nugent-Hopkins displayed this season. He might also be deployed in a more defensive role to give McDavid more liberty to push for scoring chances.
The best part of this combination? There’s very little downside.
Let’s say that the first two games against Chicago go terribly, McDavid and RNH can’t click at all, and the Oilers drop one or both games. Worst case scenario. In that case, all head coach Dave Tippett has to do is reunite the RNH-Draisaitl-Yamamoto line, which dominated during the second half of the season.
In the playoffs
If Nugent-Hopkins and McDavid work well together, then it looks like Tippett will keep the 27-year-old on the top line. Should a deep playoff run be in the cards for this team, Nugent-Hopkins’ veteran status will be vital, especially during such a bizarre playoff experience.
A deep playoff run means coming across teams like the Dallas Stars, the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche. To beat them, Nugent-Hopkins is going to have to truly showcase his transition game. On the top line, the offensive zone belongs to Kassian and McDavid. In the defensive zone, Nugent-Hopkins will no doubt be asked to do the heavy lifting.
For Nugent-Hopkins, these playoffs might as well come with a note with the hockey equivalent of “Board man gets paid”. With his 7-year, $6 million-per deal expiring at the end of next season, a big playoff performance could be the difference between a shorter-term, same per-year value and a significant raise. So these playoffs, expect Nugent-Hopkins to do everything he can to show that he’s an invaluable part of this team’s future.