The Edmonton Oilers play much worse when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, one of the team’s leaders, isn’t in the lineup. He has missed time this season, so we can analyze exactly how different the team played with and without him.
Notably, Nugent Hopkins took a pay cut to stay with the Oilers for eight more seasons. In a market like Edmonton, where it is difficult to attract free agents given the taxes and location, it was a steal to look up the longest-tenured player on the team. His loyalty, dedication, and willingness to help out anywhere he is needed will continue to be a big factor in why or if the Oilers succeed.
Boost in the Power Play From Nugent-Hopkins’ Return
First, Nugent-Hopkins provides a boost to the power play when he is in the lineup. He plays the left side, whether it is down low or shifted higher to the circle, and more likely than not, he, Connor McDavid, and Tyson Barrie will be the ones handling the puck up high and creating lanes.
More than that, his presence on the left side gives the puck carrier, mainly McDavid, a good and reliable outlet once he enters the zone. This is generally an easy zone entry and allows the Oilers to maintain possession on the power play. Many teams struggle entering the zone and setting up, and it kills valuable power-play time that could be used to get good shots on goal. With two minutes to work with (most of the time), time is precious and can be wasted quickly. Spending 20 seconds battling for the puck and then more time if the defence comes up with it and clears the puck, there’s really little advantage to having a man advantage.
Nugent-Hopkins returned from injury 10 games ago. Since then, the Oilers are 7-2-1, but what we’re looking at here is the uptick in power-play percentage after he rejoined the team. The team struggled and had to cycle through and test out others on the top unit in his absence (from “Power-play production a peculiar problem for Edmonton Oilers,” Global News, March 8, 2022).
In the two games following his return to the lineup, the Oilers went 2/2 and then 3/5 on the power play. They had a 50 percent success rate for the first few games until they struggled to score a bit. They are at over 29 percent since his return, but that number doesn’t properly indicate just how good the power play has been. They have been getting great chances and doing everything but scoring. Against the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild, they had control and put on pressure while getting many high-danger scoring chances.
Nugent-Hopkins is a veteran presence on the power play and provides another stealthy threat who can shoot and put the puck in the back of the net. With him, teams have to worry about a third option other than McDavid and Draisaitl, and if they don’t, that’s when Nugent-Hopkins takes advantage with a wrist shot from his off-side.
Nugent-Hopkins Makes the Third Line a Threat
When Nugent-Hopkins returned to the lineup, head coach Jay Woodcroft had some high praise for him and his game, saying, “Sometimes a player of Ryan’s calibre, you don’t know what you’re missing until he’s not in the lineup — and then you really see how much he effects the game.” Woodcroft is the one who put this great third line together, and it has paid off.
I’m surprised Woodcroft didn’t realize the magnitude of Nugent-Hopkins being out of the lineup considering the forward depth it created when he was shifted to the third line centre role. He elevated the play of Warren Foegele and made Derek Ryan much more effective by not having to worry as much about as he would at centre.
The Oilers can’t always rely on their stars (McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) or their top-six to carry the load. Good teams get scoring from throughout their lineup so that if one or more lines have an off night, they are still in the game. The third line with Nugent-Hopkins on it has also created mismatches, given that he might be the best third-line centre in the NHL.
Since the coaching change, Nugent-Hopkins has played 17 games, not including the three minutes he played and got injured in Florida, with four goals and 11 points. Not bad at all for a third-line player who also contributes in every area of the game, and his linemates, Foegele and Ryan, have played much better with him than without.
Foegele recorded two goals and five points in the eight games that this line was together, and now two goals in the past three games since they were reunited. He scored two goals and one assist in the 19 games away from this line and Nugent-Hopkins not his centre. Ryan scored four goals and seven points in the eight games they were originally together but fell a bit to one goal and five points in the next 16 games (while also being healthy scratched a couple of times). I’ve said it before and will continue to say it, this third line is the best the Oilers have had in a long time, and they need to keep it together for the best results at both ends of the ice.
Nugent-Hopkins’ Presence Elevates the Penalty Kill
The Oilers’ penalty kill has been more offensive this season than we’ve seen in recent years. That has to do with the usage of Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, and Ryan McLeod more on the kill on top of the already reliable and sneaky Nugent-Hopkins. Since they were first put together, Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman have shown amazing chemistry. We first saw them as a pair on the penalty kill, but then got a glimpse of them together at five-on-five.
Together they are able to find each other and have the sense to take the open ice given to them and make plays offensively while down a man. This not only kills time but also gives the Oilers a scoring chance on occasion and maybe a little extra life to the rest of the team.
We know how important killing time and creating chances offensively on the penalty kill is for the Oilers this season. Their penalty kill has had its ups and downs, and any time they can kill off two minutes, it’s a step in the right direction. Edmonton is 26/28 on the penalty kill since Nugent-Hopkins returned, and he is a big reason for that success. The penalty kill has helped them win close games and kept them competitive in games they’ve lost. He also has two goals and two assists shorthanded this season, the highest total of his 11-year career.
Related: 2022 Hart Trophy Debate: Connor McDavid vs. Auston Matthews
Whether you like Nugent-Hopkins or not, he makes an impact on the team and all over the ice. He makes both special teams better as well as his linemates. The Oilers are better with him in the lineup, and he’ll be a welcome part of the team for seven more seasons.