Let me start off by saying that I love Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. I think he has been a great warrior for the Edmonton Oilers during all of the losing seasons he has been a part of. He is a very down-to-earth person who competes hard every single night. It’s no wonder he’s one of the most beloved players on the team. However, is it possible that Oilers fans actually overvalue Nugent-Hopkins as a player? I’m going to take a dive into the career of “The Nuge” and see if the love for the player is justified by his on-ice performance.
Nugent-Hopkins was drafted first overall from the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. He cracked the Oilers’ roster as an 18-year-old and proceeded to produce 18 goals and 34 assists for 52 points in 62 games played. His rookie season was unfortunately derailed by shoulder injuries, likely costing the young man the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie. Despite his injury trouble, he had an immediate impact during his rookie campaign and quickly became loved by fans throughout Oil Country.
It’s almost unfathomable for any Oilers fan to think negatively about Nugent-Hopkins. Even on social media, where fans can be quite destructive with their opinions, people come to the defense of Nugent-Hopkins no matter how he plays.
Nugent-Hopkins has played in 539 games, posting 147 goals, 235 assists and 382 points in that span. In 2018-19 (his eighth season in the NHL), he set career highs in goals (28), assists (41) and points (69). Until this past season, he had never scored more than 24 goals (twice in 2014-15 and 2017-18) or 35 assists (once in 2013-14) in a single season. Until 2018-19 he had never produced more than 56 points more than twice (back-to-back in 2013-14 and 2014-15). At 26, there is an argument that he has finally found a way to break out offensively in a full season of action.
When Taylor Hall was drafted first overall in 2010, there was immediate pressure to produce at a high rate on the wing. Fans expected 70-plus points per season from Hall. His 26 goals and 39 assists in his final season with the Oilers was seen by many as disappointing considering his status as a first-overall draft pick, and the pressure that comes with it.
For a player that was selected first overall, why have the fans and media seemingly accepted Nugent-Hopkins’ on-ice production to this point in his career?
I’m not taking a shot at Hall. He has moved on to the New Jersey Devils and has proven to be the prolific point-producer many expected during his time with the Oilers. Which brings us back to Nugent-Hopkins.
Playing the center position comes with its own set of challenges, and many feel that he has proved to be a responsible defensive forward with an offensive flare. Is this true? Let’s look at some deeper numbers to see where he stands as a reliable, two-way center that fans claim him to be.
Do Faceoffs Matter?
The first stat I’m going to look at is his career takeaways-to-giveaways ratio. According to Hockey-Reference, Nugent-Hopkins has 369 takeaways and 297 giveaways in his career. When he is on the ice, it’s safe to bet that he won’t be committing any egregious turnovers when he is carrying the puck.
The next stat I’m taking a look at is career faceoff percentage. Again using Hockey-Reference as my source, Nugent-Hopkins has won 3,294 faceoffs and lost 4,187 for a percentage of just 44. His career-high faceoff percentage came in 2017-18 where he was 48.8 percent on the draw. This past season the Oilers utilized him on faceoffs in the defensive zone more than any other season in his career.
He took 53.6 percent of his draws in 2018-19 in the defensive zone, posting a faceoff percentage of 45.1. Any way you analyze these numbers, they aren’t very good, especially for a centerman. In fact, out of 59 centers to play 500-plus games since 2011-12, Nugent-Hopkins ranks 56th in faceoff percentage. I would think after eight seasons in the NHL a center would be able to go at least 50/50 on the draws. I’m not looking for Patrice Bergeron-type numbers, but I would definitely like to see some improvement in the dot moving forward.
Looking at Advanced Metrics
Okay, so Nugent-Hopkins isn’t a great faceoff man. That’s fine, right? With today’s analytical focus shifting towards puck possession at five-on-five, maybe faceoffs aren’t seen as important as they once were. Let’s see where he has placed himself in Corsi For percentage (CF%) in his career. CF% above 50 means a team or player is generally controlling play more than their opponents.
Hockey-Reference has Nugent-Hopkins tracked at a 48.6 CF% in his career. His career-best CF% came in 2017-18, where he posted a 51.1 CF%. His career-worst CF% (45.9) was in 2018-19, where, ironically, he posted his best statistical output as a player in the NHL.
It’s important to note here that the Oilers as a team have been a sub-50 CF% team in every season of Nugent-Hopkins’ career except for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. I do find it strange, though, that he produced the best statistical season of his career while at the same time also posting his worst five-on-five possession metrics. Is individual Corsi something that should be analyzed seriously in a team sport? I’m not sure as these advanced metrics are still new to me, but it’s something to think about moving forward.
My next analysis comes in the form of expected goals for (xGF) and expected goals against (xGA) while a player is on the ice. If your xGF comes in higher than your xGA, then it means you are generating more offense from similar scoring chances as your opponents across the NHL. It’s basically a metric that determines your quality of possession.
Looking at Nugent-Hopkins’ career xGF and xGA, I see another area where he comes in below where we would expect a top-six center. In 2017-18, he came in at a plus-4.9 xGF, which is a career high, and also the only season where he is positive. His career sees him at a minus-5.2 xGF. Despite producing goals and points at a career pace this season, he had a minus-0.9 xGF rating, meaning he wasn’t able to outproduce his opponents from similar scoring chances on the ice. Again, for the minutes he plays and the role he is given, this is not good enough in my opinion.
The Plus-Minus Debate
The final line of stats I am looking at is plus/minus. I know modern hockey fans tend to ignore plus/minus as it does not take into consideration empty net situations and can skew a player’s numbers negatively, but this is one that I think is important to look at for a couple of reasons with regards to Nugent-Hopkins.
The first reason I’m looking at his plus/minus is because in his eight seasons as a pro he has only posted two seasons with a plus-rating. Now you might be thinking that the Oilers have been a goals-against machine since he entered the league, so of course he would be a minus player, but there’s some interesting stats to observe here.
His career-high in plus/minus came in the 2017-18 season where he was a plus-10 on a team that had a minus-13 goal differential at five-on-five. His career-worst plus/minus occurred last season where he was a minus-13 despite posting career highs in goals, assists and points. Another interesting plus/minus stat to note with regards to Nugent-Hopkins is the 2016-17 season where the Oilers made the playoffs. In that same season, he was minus-10 (worst among forwards) on a team that was plus-26 in five-on-five goal differential (per natural stat trick).
Throughout his career, Nugent-Hopkins has scored 32 power-play goals and 91 power-play assists, meaning out of his 382 career points, 123 of them (or roughly 32 percent) have come on the power play.
So what we have, then, is a player that struggles with puck possession at five-on-five, winning faceoffs and even-strength point production. For a first-overall pick, I’m surprised the fans and media don’t bring these issues up very often.
Again, I’m not attacking Nugent-Hopkins the person. He is, by what I have come to know of him during his time with the Oilers, an extremely well-liked teammate and person who works hard and does whatever the team needs him to do. Unfortunately, the team’s needs are greater than what he can deliver.
Role Moving Forward
Despite my analysis pointing to fans and media overvaluing Nugent-Hopkins right now, I do not want to see him traded. I would, however, change the role he has on the team. With Leon Draisaitl proving to be a stud for the Oilers down the middle, I would convert Nugent-Hopkins to the left-wing full-time on the second-line from here on out. I would also deploy him on the first power-play unit and make sure he is in a position to not only help himself succeed, but also the team around him.
Nugent-Hopkins may have been asked too much too soon from the Oilers in their first attempt at a rebuild when he was drafted in 2011, but it’s not too late to put him in a position to help the team win every night moving forward with general manager Ken Holland at the helm. I may not value him as an effective centerman, but I hope he finds success with the Oilers in his career. For what he has gone through with the organization, he deserves the chance at lifting the Stanley Cup here more than anyone else.