Oilers Need to Reunite Nugent-Hopkins With McDavid on Top Line

Once the Edmonton Oilers figure out how serious the injury to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is and he eventually returns to the lineup, a lineup change should be in order. This means moving him back to Connor McDavid‘s wing on the first line and sparking his offence at 5-on-5 and in the goal department.

McDavid Can Spark Nugent-Hopkins’ Goal-Scoring

We saw the most productive season of Nugent-Hopkins’ career when he was playing on the left wing beside McDavid for the end of 2017-18 and to begin the 2018-19 season and into the year. Yes, by the end of the 2019-20 season, the line of Nugent-Hopkins, Leon Draisaitl, and Kailer Yamamoto was formed due to the injury to McDavid, but before that, things just seemed to click between Nugent-Hopkins and McDavid.

With just three goals on the year in 30 games, while playing exclusively on the second line with Draisaitl and Yamamoto, goals have come few and far between. I wouldn’t expect his goals to suddenly jump up either, as Draisaitl is the goal-scorer on the line and feeding the puck to him has seemed to be the main objective.

That being said, McDavid has recorded five consecutive seasons with 63 or more assists, even in shortened seasons. His most productive season with points (116) and assists (75) came in 2018-19 when Nugent-Hopkins was on his wing. That also happened to be the season where Nugent-Hopkins scored the most goals in a season in his career (28), most assists (41), and most points (69). 20 of his 28 goals and 43 of those 69 points came at 5-on-5, which is sorely what the Oilers need (from “Edmonton Oilers not getting enough even-strength contributions”, Edmonton Sun, Dec. 6, 2021).

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Edmonton Oilers
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

When these two had career years together, they didn’t have a linemate even close to the skill that Jesse Puljujarvi has on their right side. In fact, it was Ty Rattie who lined up beside them, a player that doesn’t even find himself in the NHL now.

Nugent-Hopkins’ shooting percentage is bound to go up, and who better to help him elevate it than the best player in the world who creates space and threads passes perfectly on the tape of his teammates. Nugent-Hopkins has taken 71 shots this season, scoring just three, for a shooting percentage of 4.2. His career shooting percentage is 11.6, and in the two seasons where he spent time on McDavid’s wing, he had the highest shooting percentage of his career at 15.9 and 13.5 percent. In 2018-19, Nugent-Hopkins also took the most shots in a season in his career (208).

Related: Oilers Continue to Benefit From Nugent-Hopkins Contract

All signs point to reuniting these two players to get McDavid going again and get Nugent-Hopkins into the goal column. The rest of the piece will have to be worked out and hopefully fall into place sooner than later, but the best course of action is to see what kind of production stems from McDavid connecting with McDavid. 188 career goals by Nugent-Hopkins is no small feat, and even though he is more of a playmaker, he has a great wrist shot and the hockey IQ to know where he has to be to produce offensively.

Oilers Have Options to Shuffle Middle-6 Forwards

Since Nugent-Hopkins has been out of the lineup, we’ve got to see a couple of different combinations, mostly at left wing on the second line to analyze how possible replacements can perform. First, it was Devin Shore, but after Warren Foegele stepped in, there’s no denying that he should get a longer look in the top-6 with how he’s played.

With the top-6 taken care of, if everyone is healthy, Zach Hyman can move to the third line and bring his energy, compete level, and skill to the third line with a couple of younger players. He’s versatile enough to play up and down the lineup and add to the chemistry that Ryan McLeod and Tyler Benson have shown when together. Something has to change and creating more depth by shuffling the lines could be a solution.

Zack Kassian should be available for the next game against Toronto, as he travelled with the team and will exit COVID-protocol, so that gives them yet another solid option at the bottom of the lineup if he can elevate his play.

Oilers’ Second Line Can Produce Without Nugent-Hopkins

There has been a recent uptick in production from Yamamoto finally, and it has come while continuing to play on the second line. He has been more noticeable, confident with the puck, and shooting more, resulting in some goals. In the NHL, goals can come from anywhere and from anyone as long as pucks are put on net. After a stretch of seven games without a shot, Yamamoto has changed the script and has been firing the puck and getting into better position to score.

Kailer Yamamoto Oilers
Kailer Yamamoto, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The past two games have forced Dave Tippett to try out different wingers on the left side of the second line with the absence of Nugent-Hopkins. After he flew home to Edmonton to get evaluated, the Oilers should have at least one more game to see who can be a possible fixture on that line, not only in Nugent-Hopkins’ absence but also if the lines shuffle with the lack of team production.

Despite only one combined goal from Draisaitl and Yamamoto since Nugent-Hopkins has been out of the lineup and a combined four goals and 13 points from the line over the previous three games, the Oilers need to think about the big picture. That would be getting more than one line going at even strength. As I mentioned above, this could essentially get three lines contributing offensively, while the fourth line actually looked good and played hard in their game against the New York Rangers.

The line of Nugent-Hopkins, Draisaitl, and Yamamoto hasn’t worked as efficiently as it did in 2019-20, so Tippett can’t keep counting on the hope that it will return to that. Todd McLellan was the last coach to pair McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins together, and the Oilers have more capable players to do that once again.

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