Oilers: Nugent-Hopkins Unlikely to Play Centre at World Cup

Despite not being a part of Team North America’s initial roster for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, there was never a doubt that Edmonton Oilers centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would be part of the team. While it was made official on Friday afternoon, the question now becomes whether or not the former first-overall pick will be used at centre or on the wing during the much-anticipated event. Lucky for him, the head coach is rather familiar with the strengths and weaknesses in his overall game and will slot him accordingly.

To suggest the 23-year old had a disappointing 2015-16 campaign would be quite the understatement, but that did not keep Todd McLellan from recognizing just how good a player Nugent-Hopkins is and his importance to what the Oilers are trying to accomplish. However, with a roster that also includes names like Sean Couturier, Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, Sean Monahan and Mark Scheifele, chances are the talented pivot will be placed in a somewhat unfamiliar position in the not too distant future.

McLellan Is An RNH Guy

McLellan has made a point of regularly complementing Nugent-Hopkins for just how far he has come in his development since his rookie campaign in 2011, and doing so in a less than ideal situation. The former San Jose Sharks bench boss has made a habit of comparing the former Red Deer Rebels standout to a previous “project” of sorts in Joe Pavelski and it is something he does not do lightly. Anyone who has ever heard the Melville native talk about this year’s postseason goal-scoring leader knows all too well just how much he thinks of the individual…both on and off the ice.

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Anyone who has followed the Sharks over the years watched McLellan routinely dip into his ridiculous centre depth to fill out his top two lines on a nightly basis.  While injuries and a lack of forward depth kept him from doing the same sort of thing with any sort of consistency during his first year Edmonton, that won’t be an issue during the World Cup. Just like Team Canada, this lineup is littered with centres but will obviously be lacking when it comes to the experience side of the equation.

In my mind it is safe for us to assume McDavid will anchor the top line and Couturier will do the same on what will be a checking unit of sorts. Add to that the pre-existing chemistry between former junior linemates McKinnon and Jonathan Drouin and suddenly the chances of Nugent-Hopkins being used at centre seem awfully unlikely. If the plan is for McLellan to put together four solid lines that can hopefully hold their own against traditional international powerhouses, one would think using Monahan on a line with fellow Calgary Flames teammate Johnny Gaudreau would be the best way to go about accomplishing that.

Nugent-Hopkins Team North America (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)
(Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

How Does Eichel, McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins Sound?

Which leaves this coaching staff the ability to not only use Nugent-Hopkins and Scheifele on the wing but also do the same with youngsters Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews. From an Oilers standpoint it would certainly be intriguing to see what No. 93 and No. 97 could accomplish playing together, and also give the organization a look-see at what might work come October. That is of course if the two are even still teammates by the time this tournament rolls around.  Not sure about all of you, but watching a trio of Eichel, McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins do their thing, while insulating the two kids with a guy with 300+ games of NHL experience, sounds like an interesting option to me.

[Related Article: The Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Effect]

When all is said and done, the chances of Team North America being in the mix for a medal at the 2016 World Cup would appear to be unlikely, but the level of skill on this squad is off the charts. And dismissing talent is never a good idea…even if they are young. While Ryan Nugent-Hopkins may be forced into playing out of position, he is among the most tenured players that Todd McLellan will have at his disposal and that alone will make him a key figure in a tournament that features the greatest players in the game today.