Oilers’ Nugent-Hopkins May Be Expendable to Help Create Cap Space

The 2022 offseason will be a pivotal one for the Edmonton Oilers. The belief is that they are borderline Stanley Cup contenders after coming off of a season that saw them advance to the Western Conference Final. With two of the game’s greatest players in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, that is a fair assumption to make. In saying that, however, they have plenty of things to work out before the 2022-23 season begins.

Related: Oilers Quickly Becoming Top Free Agent Destination

The biggest pressing issue is figuring out a way to create cap space, as they don’t have plenty of it right now, yet are still hopeful to address their goaltending issues while also hoping to bring back Evander Kane. While several options have been discussed from storing Mike Smith on long-term injured reserve to trading or possibly buying out Zack Kassian, there is another option that should be considered as well, and that option is dealing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Oilers’ Need for Nugent-Hopkins in Top 6 Has Decreased

Prior to the 2021-22 season, Nugent-Hopkins was a player who provided a lot of flexibility in the Oilers’ top-six forward unit. This was due to the fact that former head coach Dave Tippett often used McDavid and Draisaitl on a line together, meaning ‘Nuge’ was in charge of centering the second line.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Edmonton Oilers
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That wasn’t the case in 2021-22, as both Tippett, followed by Jay Woodcroft, often chose to have Draisaitl and McDavid on separate lines. This meant that Nugent-Hopkins was often responsible for centering the third line, as players like Kane, Jesse Puljujarvi, Zach Hyman and Kailer Yamamoto were often wingers in the top six.

While this is no fault of Nugent-Hopkins, a player making $5.125 million is an expensive one to have on your third line, particularly for a cap-strapped team. That money would go a long way in finding the starting goalie they desperately need, while also helping to open up the room to bring back Kane, a player who was instrumental to their success this past season.

Nugent-Hopkins Offense Has Declined

After an incredible rookie season in which he recorded 52 points in 62 games, Nugent-Hopkins turned into more of a two-way player who you could count on for 50-plus points in a regular season when healthy. That by no means is meant as a knock on the 29-year-old, who has long been one of the Oilers’ more valuable players.

While that offense was still solid, however, he was able to boost his totals in a big way in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, posting a combined 130 points in 147 games. Those totals made him even more valuable to the Oilers’ lineup, but they haven’t been sustained over the past two seasons.

Since the start of the 2020-21 campaign, Nugent-Hopkins has played in 115 games and registered 85 points. Those aren’t bad totals, but if you take away his success on the Oilers’ outstanding power play, you’ll see a player who has really struggled to put up offense at even strength as of late.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Oilers
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers, Oct. 21, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

During the 2020-21 season, Nugent-Hopkins recorded 35 points in 52 games. Of those 35 points, just 15 came at even strength, a total which was less than players such as Darnell Nurse, Tyson Barrie, Puljujarvi and Yamamoto, and just ahead of Dominik Kahun and Josh Archibald. It is also important to note that the 2020-21 season was just 56 games in length due to the pandemic, so it isn’t as though the other players mentioned appeared in plenty more games.

The 2021-22 season wasn’t much better in terms of even-strength productivity for Nugent-Hopkins, as just 22 of his 50 points came during it. That mark once again trailed several of his teammates including Hyman, Yamamoto, Kane, Puljujarvi, Nurse, Evan Bouchard, Cody Ceci and Warren Foegele. In his defense here, he was limited to just 63 games due to injury, but those totals are still very alarming for a player of his skill level.

Moving Nugent-Hopkins Deserves Some Consideration

I am very well aware when writing this that many Oilers fans will be critical of the idea. After all, Nugent-Hopkins became a fan favorite in Edmonton early on in his career and remains one today. He was a player who stuck with it through the decade of darkness, never complaining once and always working his tail off each and every shift.

By all accounts, especially given the fact he took an eight-year extension recently, this is a player who truly enjoys being an Oiler. As such, he may have no desire to leave, and he completely controls that fate as he earned a full no-movement clause (NMC) in his last contract. That said, moving him would give Holland some financial freedom which he desperately needs to shore up other areas that are lacking on this roster, meaning asking Nugent-Hopkins to waive his NMC is something that this management group should at the very least consider doing.

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