Photo credit:Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
2023-24’s Biggest Storylines #8 – The Top Six Support Pieces
5 months ago
Continuing along in my pre-season countdown series where I’m taking a look at the ten biggest storylines that I’ll be watching next season, the first few have already dug into the Oilers forward group pretty hard. In the first part, we talked about some young pieces that could jump into the lineup and make an impact next season, and in part two, we talked about how big of an impact Connor Brown will make in the top six.
Today, I want to talk about the other pieces in the top six. No, not McDavid and Draisaitl, but the pieces around them.
Last year, the Oilers saw massive jumps in production from both Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman.
Nugent-Hopkins was one of only 11 players in the league to crack the 100-point mark as he posted 104 points in 82 games. He absolutely obliterated his previous career high of 69 points.
Hyman also set a career-high in both points and goals. He finished the year with 36 goals and 47 assists in 79 games. It’s worth noting that 21 of those goals came at even-strength as well.
That production was a big reason why the Oilers were able to lead the league in goals per game with 3.96. That mark is actually the second-highest single-season GF/GP that the league has seen this century. Only the 2021-22 Florida Panthers (4.11) finished the year with a higher GF/GP.
Evander Kane is the third piece of this equation and while an unfortunate wrist injury really derailed his 2022-23 campaign, he still produced at a pretty decent level when he was in the lineup. He finished the year with 16 goals in 41 games, a 32-goal pace over a full season.
The issue with Kane would be that his production really came in bunches. He had two hat-tricks during the regular season and there were two different stretches where he went at least five games without a goal.
Production from the three complimentary pieces in the Oilers top six was not an issue in the regular season, the problems came in the playoffs when those three forwards combined for just seven goals in 12 games with just four of those goals coming at even strength.
Their production fell off a cliff and it’s one of the major reasons why the Oilers weren’t able to get past the Vegas Golden Knights. I know it sounds weird to say that a lack of scoring hurt the Oilers, and goaltending was definitely the other major reason why they lost that series, but if they had had Kane, Hyman, and Nugent-Hopkins playing at their best, I believe they could have won games five and six. They needed to score more.
Their bead and butter all season was their ability to outscore their opponents, not win tight defensive games, and that disappeared towards the end of that series.
As for next season, I think expectations should be tempered when it comes to Nugent-Hopkins next season. He is obviously capable of posting 100 points again, I’m not saying he isn’t, and as long as he continues to play a key role on the top powerplay unit, he will keep putting up really good numbers, but he crushed his career high by 35 points. That’s crazy.
I think expecting point-per-game production from Nugent-Hopkins is fair. So who will cover that drop-off? Well, a healthy Evander Kane should help. If Kane can stay relatively healthy and play in even 20 more games, then he should be able to chip in another seven to ten goals and that right there will help.
Really, there should be no concerns about the supporting pieces in the top six and their abilities to produce in the regular season, the big question will be if they can rise to the occasion come playoff time.
Just like the team as a whole, these three players will be judged based on how they perform in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
If both Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman score 15 fewer points during the regular season but they each see their goal production jump up during the postseason, the Oilers would gladly take that.
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