The 2019-20 season has been kind to the Edmonton Oilers. Connor McDavid continues to cement his status as one of the world’s finest hockey players and Leon Draisaitl has taken his next step into superstardom. On top of that the team has received surprising performances from rookies such as as Ethan Bear and Kailer Yamamoto.
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The stars have aligned in Alberta’s capital and it is looking like Oil Country will finally get another taste of playoff hockey this Spring. Yet, there is one critical part of the team that has flown under the radar until recently.
The Nuge Has Been Huge
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has emerged as one of the heartbeats of this Oilers team and is only now getting his time in the spotlight. This might seem like a weird sentiment at first. How could a player of Nugent-Hopkins’ calibre be swept under the radar until recently? He is the longest-tenured Oiler on the current roster, having been with the team since the 2011-12 season, and is coming off a career year in 2018-19 that saw him put up 69 points.
The answer to this question is quite simple: he is on the same team as McDavid and Draisaitl. It is easy for Nugent-Hopkins to be relegated to media obscurity when many of his good nights are shadowed by more impressive showings by the dynamic duo.
A recent example of this can be seen in the immediate reaction to last Monday’s 8-3 victory over the Nashville Predators in which Nugent-Hopkins put up a three-point night. This would have received much more attention if it wasn’t for McDavid and Draisaitl each gathering five points of their own. This swiftly moved Nuge’s performance as the B-story of the game.
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However, since that game the attention surrounding Nugent-Hopkins impact on the Oilers has spiked. He had the lone regulation goal in Edmonton’s 2-1 overtime win over the Dallas Stars this past Tuesday and drew the penalty in overtime that resulted in the game-winning goal, in which he also picked up an assist. This boosted his point total to 58 on the season as he is on pace to surpass his aforementioned career-high of 69.
New Year, New Nuge
One of the turning points of the season for the Oilers was, coincidentally, the turn of the new year from 2019 to 2020. The team was coming off a dismal December that saw their 16-9-3 record fall to 21-17-4. It was a month to forget and many who followed the team expected the team’s playoff hopes to shatter as the rest of the year went on.
That, as we now know, was not the case. The team was able to recoup in the new year and they now find themselves in a dog-fight with the Vegas Golden Knights for the division crown. The turnaround came at the exact right time for the Oilers and the same can be said for Nugent-Hopkins.
The first 36 games of the season were rather disappointing for No. 93. He spent the majority of his time on the ice in between James Neal and Alex Chiasson on the team’s second line. He struggled to score with these two as he was only able to muster up eight goals and 16 assists, good enough for just 24 points To compare, during the same time period he was outscored by teammates Oscar Klefbom (25), Neal (27) and Zack Kassian (27).
This would change dramatically after the new year when he was put on a line with Draisaitl and Yamamoto. The pair would explode offensively and quickly establish themselves as one of the most dangerous lines in the NHL.
Yamamoto and Draisaitl were the headliners of the line as they each saw their production grow to extreme levels. Yamamoto has been scoring a hair over a point-per-game on the line while Draisaitl has taken complete control of the league’s scoring race.
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Nugent-Hopkins, once again in the shadow of the players around him, would also explode offensively. Since Jan. 1 he has produced 12 goals and 22 assists in 26 games. This ranks fifth in the NHL during that span behind only Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Nikita Kucherov, and Draisaitl. Furthermore, it catapulted him from sixth in team scoring to third.
There is also the point-per-game stat which is absolutely dominated by the Oilers since New Year’s Eve, Nuge included.
What Does The Future Hold?
It is quite obvious that Nugent-Hopkins’ impact on the Oilers during this time has been invaluable and the team would not be in the position they are without him. As I mentioned earlier it is looking like he will be surpassing his career-high of 69 points and we should expect him to land somewhere in the low-to-mid 70s.
As for his future with the team, he still has a year left on a deal that will pay him $6 million. After that, he will enter free agency in the summer of 2021. It would be smart of general manager Ken Holland to start negotiations this summer but, given the team’s cap situation, they might be hard-pressed in inking him to a long-term deal.
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Recent reports of the cap increasing to $88 million are encouraging but it will definitely take some degree of creativity for the Oilers to keep him around a bit longer.