At the quarter mark of the 2021-22 NHL season, there is probably no more fascinating case study on the Edmonton Oilers than Ryan Nugent Hopkins. One’s opinion of the veteran forward depends on whether they see the glass half full or half empty.
Nugent-Hopkins is tied for fourth in the NHL with 18 assists. But only one-third of his helpers have come playing at even-strength.
He had at least one point in 13 of Edmonton’s first 15 games. But he’s now gone four straight games without recording a single point.
He’s averaging one point per game but has scored just once in 19 games this season. And that’s the statistic that’s starting to cause unease among even the most optimistic observers.
The Oilers have the most goals in the Western Conference, and scoring is a big reason why Edmonton has racked up 28 points (from a 14-5-0 record) to sit second in the Western Conference standings.
But much of the Oilers’ offense has come from the superstar duo of Leon Draisiatl and Connor McDavid, who have combined for 34 of Edmonton’s 74 goals through 19 games. Even if Draisaitl and McDavid keep lighting lamps at such an incredible pace, sooner or later, the Oilers are going to need more players to provide secondary scoring.
At the top of that list is the 28-year-old Nugent-Hopkins, a four-time 20-goal scorer who has never had less than 18 goals in a full-length NHL season. He’s closing in on 200 goals for his career and is in the first season of an eight-year, $41 million contract that ranks among the largest deals on the Oilers.
Slump Goes Back to Last Season
Nineteen games is a relatively small sample size to get too worked up about, especially concerning someone with a track record of 10-plus NHL seasons.
But the data from the second half of last season reveals that Nugent-Hopkins’ scoring drought may be more than a minor blip. Nugent-Hopkins scored nine times in his first 20 games of 2020-21 but had just seven goals in the next 32 games.
That gives Nugent-Hopkins eight goals in his last 51 games, far below what can be reasonably expected of an experienced forward that is still in his 20s, making over $5 million a season, and has averaged in a range near 25 goals per 82 games since coming into the NHL as the first overall pick in the 2011 Entry Draft.
No Obvious Reason for Lack of Goals
Everything suggests that in 2021-22, Nugent-Hopkins should be in the prime of his career. He’s on the ice for a career-high 20:56 per game and is playing most frequently alongside Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto, the line on which he had tremendous run during 2019-20.
But while Nugent-Hopkins is averaging 2.37 shots, which exactly matches his career average, a deeper dive reveals more about the quantity and quality of his opportunities to score.
Nugent-Hopkins’ high danger scoring chances per 60 minutes (1.81) is by far the lowest of his career; his shot attempts per 60 minutes (11.76) and unblocked shot attempts per 60 minutes (8.74) are both the second-lowest of his career, and his scoring chances per 60 minutes (7.84) are the third-lowest of his career. All four of these figures are sharp declines from 2020-21.
Nugent-Hopkins Contributes in Many Ways
Edmonton boasts the league’s No. 1 power play (39.0%) and fifth-ranked penalty kill (86.9%), and Nugent-Hopkins is a central figure on both: he plays nearly six minutes per game on special teams, while no other Oiler is even averaging five.
Related Link: Oilers’ Dominant Penalty Kill Flying Under the Radar
While he’s only scored one himself, Nugent-Hopkins has certainly collaborated in many goals this season. With 18 assists, the 6-foot forward only needs one more assist to equal his total from the entire 2020-21 season, when he had 19 in 52 games. Twelve of his apples are from the man advantage, second-most in the NHL, behind only McDavid, who has 13 power-play assists.
Some would argue that Nugent-Hopkins’ gaudy assist total is fool’s gold given, so few have come at even strength. Still, again, it’s about perspective: is Nugent-Hopkins getting so many power-play assists because he’s part of such a potent power-play, or is the power-play so potent because Nugent-Hopkins is a part of it?
Oilers Need Goals from Nugent-Hopkins
Between regular season and playoffs, Nugent-Hopkins has suited up nearly 700 times for the Oilers, and the number of games in which his effort and dedication could be questioned is less than one. Edmonton’s longest-tenured alternate captain, he’s a player and person of the highest character, who sets an example for all to follow. There isn’t a team that wouldn’t want him on their ice and in their locker room. But he still must score more.
Oilers general manager Ken Holland emptied the coffers this offseason because the GM believed Nugent-Hopkins would provide, in addition to everything else, 20-25 goals per season (plus a handful more in the playoffs) that the Oilers will need if they are to finally reach the next level.
Nugent-Hopkins should snap out of his scoring funk. Probably, maybe. But until that happens, the bubbling worries in Edmonton will come closer to a boil. He could turn down the heat with a goal or two Saturday when the Oilers play the Vegas Golden Knights in Las Vegas.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.