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Nugent-Hopkins: Discusses the Best Start of His Career

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Photo credit:© Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Gregor
25 days ago
In his 12th NHL season Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is having the best start of his career. By a lot. The baby-faced assassin has 19 goals, 29 assists and 48 points in 40 games. In his sophomore season, he scored 4-20-24 in the 40 games of the shortened 48-games season.
It is rare to see a player explode offensively in his 12th year in the league, but that’s exactly what RNH is doing. I spoke with him to find out why.
His career high in goals (28), assists (41) and points (69) all occurred in the 2018-19 season. He had 14-22-36 through 40 games. He’s already 12 points ahead of that pace. Nugent-Hopkins currently sits tied for eighth in points with Alex Ovechkin and Mikko Rantanen. He is tied for 12th in assists and 19th in goals. He’s having an All-Sstar worthy season, but due to the NHL’s archaic decision to ensure one player from each team makes the AS game, he likely won’t go. But I digress.
Jason Gregor: Jay Woodcroft told me you two had a conversation at the start of the year about how you wanted to be better. Everybody always wants to be better, but how have you been able to implement what you worked on, and have it led to actual production on the ice?
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: When I had the conversation, I wanted to be better producing offense. I’ve still been happy with the way that I’ve played the last few years, and I’ve been growing my game. Obviously last year I didn’t…. score as much as I would like to, and my shooting percentage was down to about seven percent or something. That happens when you’re not putting the puck in. A lot of fans, media, they put a ton of emphasis on points obviously, and scoring goals and I know that it’s a big part of the game, but I just tried to play the same way that I’ve played the last few years. The goals are going in a little bit more now, so people talk about it a little bit more, but I thought that last year I still was pretty happy overall with how I played, especially late in the season, and the playoffs.
Gregor: Production gets talked about because it’s obviously one of the bigger ways to impact the game either offensively or defensively. Looking at some of the stats, it says you are using your snapshot more this year and you’re also getting significantly more shots from the inner slot and the slot. Is that a concerted decision by you to get closer to the net?
RNH: I think for the snapshot part that’s kind of always been my shot, but I definitely put an emphasis on getting to the greasy areas a little bit more, whether it’s right in front of the net or in the soft spot on the slot. But, I’m getting that opportunity and try to bear down and emphasizing on shooting the puck hard, but obviously trying to pick your spot.
** He had 36 shots from the inner slot last year and 83 slot shots in total. In 40 games this year he has 29 inner slot shots and 62 overall. He’s around the net much more.**
Gregor: How much does confidence play into it now for you? Does the net look bigger? 
RNH: Confidence is a huge part of hockey for sure. I think anybody would attest to that. It’s a huge part of life for sure. It’s the better you feel, the more confidence you have to go out there and do your thing and not overthink situations. I mean for me as a hockey player getting the puck on my stick and not overthink it, and just trust in my ability to be able to make the right play is helping for sure.
Gregor: You mentioned how you felt like you played well last year, and you really picked up your game in the playoffs when it mattered most. Has that carried over for you personally, not to mention having the deepest playoff run of your career? How did those three rounds impact your off-season?
RNH: I think a lot. I mean we get a push like that. You get deep into the playoffs and guys who have been around a while, that’s the farthest we’ve gone. All of a sudden you’re down to four teams and it’s a little bit more real. Obviously, we weren’t happy with the way it ended for us, but at the same time you get a little bit more drive and you realize how important it is to be at your best every night. I’m sure it’s the same for quite a few guys in this room, a little bit of a fire and obviously I’m 29 now. The one thing I want to do, the one thing I care about is winning. When you get, I’d say maybe a taste of getting close at least, yeah, I mean it definitely adds some fuel to the fire.
Gregor: When you consider that and then look at how the team has started this year, I think it’s fair to say for you guys had higher expectations than this, especially on home ice. How does your mindset differ than the first few years when you didn’t have any success. Now you’ve had it. This group is just as talented as last year, but the results just aren’t there yet. How do you approach it differently than before having success? Are you more urgent to be vocal, because you see you can’t waste this opportunity?
RNH: Yeah, I think a lot of us have that mindset of stopping it in its tracks, right away. Obviously last year we went through that tough stretch in December and we found a way to turn it around. I think we’ve been better at not letting that happen. Not letting it get away. I still think that we can improve on not letting that happen in individual games where you’ve got to stop the momentum, you’ve got to turn the momentum and not feed into… I mean, this is a good league. Teams are good. There are no easy nights and teams are going to push, but you have to find a way to be able to counteract that. That doesn’t mean that you’re all of the sudden going to be able to start dominating them back, you’ve got to be able to just weather it and not let the bleeding get too bad.
Gregor: Is it too easy to say that you miss some of the emotional guys like Evander Kane, Mike Smith was a very vocal guy, Duncan Keith too. Does the group miss that at all?
RNH: I think veteran guys like that for sure make themselves, make their presence known. It’s definitely helpful to a group, definitely a younger group, but we have guys in here capable of doing that and we are seeing guys step up into more roles like that. It’s going to be important down the stretch for sure, it’s that leadership, that kind of maturity that is going to get us where we want to go.
Gregor: You have 19 goals, you are top-10 ten in scoring. Do your personal goals alter at all, and you think I’ve got to maintain this now?
RNH: 100% I want to maintain it, more so just to be able to help the team and I want to be able to contribute on all aspects of my game. I definitely want to maintain this, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be giving up anything defensively to sacrifice, to push offensively and try to maintain. I have to play my two-way game and be a mature player out there, take care of the puck when I can, but also bear down on opportunities when I get the chance.
Gregor: Without giving away any secrets, you’ve been on good power plays before, but just under 40% over the last six weeks, this unit has been pretty good.  It’s the same guys, but you’ve taken the powerplay to a new level. What’s impressed you most about your power play recently?
RNH: The way we can really switch positions and kind of go anywhere and make plays off of what we call road hockey, which is just when a play gets broken down and then we make a play off of that. I think that’s something that we’ve always had in our arsenal, but I think this year we’ve kind of taken it another step and I think that’s just a factor of playing so much together now. What is it now, three years, four years now that we’ve had the same look? So, just being able to switch positions and it doesn’t really matter who is where, we’re going to make plays and we’re confident in our ability to do so.
Gregor: Your five-on-five scoring is up, and so is your power play scoring. Does it cross over for you? There’s confidence overall, but when you get the, Struddy (Jason Strudwick) calls them the cookies on the power play, supposedly easier points. Does that transfer to you?
RNH: Struddy calls them cookies because he never got those in his day (laughs), he’s still a little bitter about that. Well, I truly think the power play is such an integral part of any team’s success. I mean if we score once a game on a power play, think about how important one goal in any game is. It’s just, it’s an important part. We take a lot of pride in it, and I think what we take pride in is outworking the penalty kill. Not making it easy for them, and not just thinking, ‘Okay we are on the powerplay, and we can take it easy.’ No, we need that killer instinct and I think that right now, obviously you have to keep going, but I think right now we have that.
Gregor: You’ve been in the league now over a decade, offensively there are more goals now. When you look back at your first few years, why do you think offense is up across the league?
RNH: I think it does come down to the players in the league. I think that there is a lot of young talent. When I first came in, you had two top lines and offensive lines and then the third and fourth lines, they grind, and then you have tough guys on the team. I think teams are a little deeper offensively, and saying that, and knowing that, we need to stop goals from going in our net. So, it’s good on one hand, but we need to find a way to shut down these offensive young, talented players.

WRAP UP….

Nugent-Hopkins has shown no signs of slowing down. He has gone pointless in two consecutive games only twice this season. He’s gone goalless in four games, but he had four assists in those games. This is the most consistent I’ve seen him play in his career. His success in the playoffs has really boosted his confidence, but also, as he mentioned, his drive.
What is interesting about scoring across the league is that it isn’t really the young players lighting up the league. Jason Robertson, Jack Hughes and Elias Pettersson are the only three players 24 years of age and under in the top-30 in league-scoring. Pettersson is in his fifth season, while Hughes is in his fourth, but he’s only 21. Age might be a factor down the depth chart, but I wonder how much skaters having skill coaches has helped increase scoring. For years in the early 2000s it was only goalies who had off-season coaches. Now many forwards and D-men have their own skills coaches, and a lot of it is focused on puck handling, scoring, passing and creating offence from different areas.
I think it is great for the game, and shooters have realized goalies go down all the time and they are shooting upstairs more frequently. But now they are hitting those small holes more regularly than in the past. Will we see goalies adjust and become hybrid standup goalies at times, especially on sharp angle shots?
More scoring has meant more lead changes and comebacks, and that is what makes games more exciting to watch. Before if a team led 2-0 or 3-1 late in the second the game was usually decided. Not anymore.

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