When the Edmonton Oilers used the first overall pick in the 2011 Entry Draft on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the plan was for the former Red Deer Rebels standout to be the club’s top line centre for years to come. However, that changed when the team continued to struggle to gain ground in the standings and were ultimately gifted a generational talent in Connor McDavid.
Instead of being that go-to-guy for the next decade plus, Nugent-Hopkins had not only been pushed out of the spotlight but in some minds, perhaps completely out of the equation. With the addition of McDavid and steady development of Leon Draisaitl, it appeared as though the organization might be leaning towards squeezing the Burnaby native and his $6 million price tag right out of the picture.
It’s no secret that Peter Chiarelli had looked into potentially moving him both prior to and after completing the trade that saw Taylor Hall and Adam Larsson swap teams but ultimately decided to keep RNH around. Well, it looks as though that was a wise decision, as the combination of the Oilers lack of scoring depth on the wing and a rejuvenated Nugent-Hopkins has given Todd McLellan the versatility he was hoping for.
RNH Gives McLellan Options
In the minds of many a critic and fan, it was a foregone conclusion that Edmonton’s top two centres in 2017-18 were going to be McDavid and Draisaitl. However, what they weren’t taking into consideration was the responsibility that comes with the match-ups McLellan had Nugent-Hopkins playing on a nightly basis and doing so while skating alongside linemates who are not exactly offensively gifted.
Add to that the Oilers apparent need to continue to use Draisaitl on No. 97’s wing and suddenly the importance of Nugent-Hopkins becomes all the more evident. As an added bonus, the 24-year old looks as though he has rediscovered his goal scoring touch and it could not have come a better time. Let’s not forget, this roster features three forwards who consistently score goals at even strength and they all play on the same line.
"Confidence. I'm trying plays I wouldn't have last year." Nugent-Hopkins on four goals in nine games.
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) October 27, 2017
In an ideal world, McLellan would love to use the trio of McDavid, Draisaitl and Patrick Maroon as his top unit in certain situations and other times turn to the potential three-headed monster of McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent- Hopkins down the middle. Unfortunately, the aforementioned inability of any winger on the roster, other than the guy wearing No. 19, to score goals has made the latter next to impossible.
Hence, making what we have seen from Nugent-Hopkins to start the 2017-18 campaign all the more important. By no means has the three-time 50-point man been perfect, as he has been MIA in some of the team’s uglier losses, but he has arguably been the club’s most consistent forward not named McDavid. The kid continues to be used in all situations and has even managed to quiet his FO% bashers with a stellar 54.3% in the dot.
Oilers Need Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
For the first time in probably three years, Nugent-Hopkins is looking to shoot the puck and it shows on the ice. If he continues to play with linemates who are incapable of finishing around the net, his days of being a pass-first guy are likely a thing of the past. Contrary to popular belief, he has a fantastic wrist and shown the ability to be a finisher at this level.
With four goals in ten games, there is a good chance Nugent-Hopkins surpasses his career-high of 24 and allows his head coach the ability to use the McDavid – Draisaitl tandem with greater frequency due to need, rather than want. The notion of the Oilers putting together three scoring lines is great but they simply do not have the horses. It isn’t a realistic ask and this team is no longer in a position where they can be in wait and see mode.
In other words, the Edmonton Oilers season could very well be tied to the effectiveness of one Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and coming into 2017-18, many would have thought that an impossibility. For an organization who has quickly and ineffectively moved some of his former teammates via trade, management may want to be a little more careful this time around before making any rash decision they will most certainly end up regretting.
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Rob Soria is the Author of Connor McDavid: Hockey’s Next Great One. He has chronicled the Orange and Blue since creating his Oil Drop blog in 2011 and has also had his writings featured over at HometownHockey.ca and Vavel USA, where he has covered the NHL, MLB and ATP Tour. Rob was born, raised and still resides in Edmonton, Alberta and can be reached via twitter @Oil_Drop.