A closer look into an impressive and unique career season for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Photo credit:© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
What a journey it’s been for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with the Edmonton Oilers.
Twelve NHL seasons. Eight coaches. Five general managers. 187 different teammates.  
Safe to say, he’s been through a lot throughout his NHL career. And yet, it doesn’t seem like he’s aged a day since his draft day in 2011.
On Wednesday, with an assist on an empty-net goal from Zach Hyman, Nugent-Hopkins hit the impressive 100-point mark for the first time in his career. With that point, the Oilers became the first team with three players scoring 100 points in a single season since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1996.
It goes without saying, but hitting the century mark is quite the accomplishment, with just 21 active players scoring 100 points in a single season before. Players like Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, and Steven Stamkos have only once produced 100 points in a single season in their careers, now the same amount of times as Nugent-Hopkins.
His career season this year has been quite fascinating; how often do you see a player hit 100 points for the first time after twelve seasons in the NHL? His previous career-high in points (69) is nearly matched by his total amount of assists this year (64).
Although he turns 30 in just a couple of days (which is hard to think about!), we’ll consider this as Nuge’s age 29 season. Here’s a look at some of the biggest increases in points per game rate from age 28 to age 29 throughout NHL history.
Claude Giroux had the biggest PPG increase from age 28 to 29. In 2016-17, he had 58 points in 82 games, and in the following season, he had 102 points in 82 games. Nugent-Hopkins ranks third on this list, as he had 50 points in 63 games last season, and currently has 100 in 79, a PPG increase of roughly +0.47.
Among players with at least 40 games in both their age 28 and 29 seasons, only thirteen players have seen their PPG rate increase by +0.35 or more at 29.
So, Nugent-Hopkins has had a pretty unique and rare season that doesn’t occur too often. Per Zach Laing, he becomes just the sixth player in NHL history to record his first 100th-point campaign in his 12th season or later.
So, what’s the greatest reason for such a huge spike in production?
At first glance, it’s reasonable to say there’s a good amount of luck involved. Last season, Nugent-Hopkins held a shooting percentage of 7.1 percent. This year, it’s at 18.7 percent, over 2.5 times higher. His previous career-high was 15.9 percent, and his overall on-ice shooting-percentage rates are significantly up at both 5v5 and all-strengths. Consequently, luck is a major factor here.
However, it would be unfair to merely chalk up his performance to luck alone.
A lot has been discussed about Nugent-Hopkins and his power-play production. Firstly, let’s take a look at how the top unit performs with and without Nugent-Hopkins.
In the past three seasons with McDavid and Draisaitl on the power play with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, they’ve generated roughly 14.2 goals per hour.
To put into perspective just how impressive that is, the highest power-play scoring rate for any non-Oilers team since 2007 came from the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that averaged 11.5 goals per hour on the man advantage that season.
In terms of the highest PP scoring rate by a team in a single season, the gap between Edmonton’s PP1 unit and the second highest scoring team, is a bigger gap than 2nd and 50th (!) place (the 16-17 Capitals). It’s truly incredible just how dominant Edmonton’s top power-play unit is.
However, remove Nugent-Hopkins from the power play entirely, and their scoring rate dips all the way to 7.9 goals per hour.
That’s a decrease of roughly 45 percent.
Furthermore, McDavid produces 10.7 points per hour on the power-play in the past three seasons. With Nugent-Hopkins, he’s at 11.3, but without him, he drops to 7.3.
Draisaitl produces 9.4 PP points per hour. He’s at 10.2 with Nugent-Hopkins on-ice, but 5.0 without him, meaning his PP production is essentially halved without RNH.
Additionally, the top unit also sees a considerable decline in chances created, although this gap isn’t as large because Edmonton always tends to score on their first or second chance on the PP, thus eliminating the possibility of further rebound chances. Regardless, it cannot be understated how crucial Nugent-Hopkins is to Edmonton’s power-play success. 
I feel his impact on the PP has been underrated outside of Edmonton, as I’ve often seen claims he’s not much more than a beneficiary of McDavid and Draisaitl. It’s an indisputable fact that he’s benefitted quite a bit from consistent playing time with world-class offensive players on the man advantage, but he’s a genuinely valuable piece of that power-play unit. 
52 of his 100 points have come from the power-play, which is an incredibly high proportion, but the simple fact is that without him, that unit scores significantly less. He’s earning a lot of points on a power play that he significantly contributes to.
Furthermore, his outstanding PP production shouldn’t take away from the fact that he’s legitimately an effective player at even strength. 
To evaluate even-strength play, I often like using EvolvingHockey’s RAPM tool. It’s certainly not perfect, but it gives us an idea of how well a player can drive play at 5v5 and generate/prevent scoring chances. The tool attempts to adjust for quality of teammates/competition, and isn’t directly affected by luck.
Here’s a look at his even-strength impacts in the past couple of seasons:
Nugent-Hopkins struggled for his standards at 5v5 last season, but it’s reasonable to look at that year as an odd outlier in that regard. Overall, he’s been a strong two-way player. In three of the past four seasons, Nugent-Hopkins has ranked at or above the 76th percentile in terms of his impact on 5v5 scoring chance differential. Put into simpler terms, Nugent-Hopkins’ impact on driving and preventing chances at 5v5 has consistently been greater than nearly four-fifths of the league’s forwards. 
Using my 5v5 microstat tracking project for the Oilers, Nugent-Hopkins ranks 1st on the team in defensive-zone puck retrieval success rate and 2nd in defensive-zone breakups per CA. He’s also 3rd in primary shot assists per 60, and 4th in controlled zone exit percentage.
In regards to 5v5 points per 60, Nugent-Hopkins ranks 77th in the league. That doesn’t seem too impressive, but in technical terms, there are 96 first-liners in the NHL (three per team). 77th would still place him at low-end first-liner / high-end second-liner levels of 5v5 production.
Contrary to many people’s beliefs outside of Edmonton, Nugent-Hopkins’ most common linemates at 5v5 this season has actually been Zach Hyman and Mattias Janmark.
In spite of this, his 5v5 goal differential actually ranks higher than both McDavid’s and Draisaitl’s. With McDavid and Draisaitl off-ice at 5v5, Nugent-Hopkins has a solid 53 percent goal share. 
All things considered, while Nugent-Hopkins certainly isn’t the most spectacular producer at even strength, he’s a very effective EV player nonetheless, with positive impacts at both ends of the ice. 
It often perplexes me how some imply that producing on the power play is a bad thing. 
Even-strength performance is more valuable, as the vast majority of games are played at that strength, so there’s no debate from me there. However, power-play success just cannot be pushed aside. This season, 13 of the current 16 teams that sit in a playoff position also rank in the top sixteen in PP goals per 60. It was the same story last season for the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs, and the eventual cup-winning Avalanche team ranked first in the 2022 playoffs in PP goals per hour. Most notably as of recently in a high-scoring league, success on the power play is becoming more predictive of team success. 
There certainly are cases of players that generate most of their value from the PP despite not being a major contributor and struggle to be effective at 5v5. Oilers fans have seen examples of this first-hand, such as Alex Chiasson a few seasons back. 
If Nugent-Hopkins was merely a secondary piece on a power play that scored at a very similar rate without him, and if he was some sort of liability at 5v5, then there’s a strong argument to be made against him, but that simply isn’t the case here at all. 
This is a player that contributes at both ends of the ice at 5v5, and is a major component of Edmonton’s exceptional success on the man advantage. Albeit influenced by luck, he’s had an incredible season that he deserves credit for.
Will Nugent-Hopkins hit 100 points again? Based on his shooting percentage numbers, my guess is that it’s unlikely.
But this is a milestone that is fully deserved by RNH, and an achievement to be celebrated. He’s gone through quite a bit in his career with Edmonton, with a lot of dark lows. 
Now, Edmonton is finally beginning to emerge as a cup contender, with Nugent-Hopkins as a major component of the team. After spending years as an underappreciated player on an awful team, he deserves the recognition he’s finally beginning to obtain.
“He’s a winner, he does a lot of little things that go into team wins,” said coach Jay Woodcroft regarding Nugent-Hopkins. 
“We’re lucky to have him on our team.”
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