The Edmonton Oilers are entering the 2021-22 season with new forwards in their top nine, with the notable additions of Zach Hyman and Warren Foegele. The off-season additions can push the Oilers to the top of the Pacific Division, but they’ll need all hands on deck. Not only will they be leaning on the new additions to make some noise in the Pacific Division, but they’ll be banking on two veterans to have bounce-back seasons.
When he arrived in Edmonton, Oilers’ fans remembered him as public enemy number one with the Vancouver Canucks, due to his stick swinging incident with former Oiler Sam Gagner. But as the saying goes, time heals all wounds and Zach Kassian found himself turning into a fan favorite during the Oilers’ playoff run in 2017. With his rugged play and mutton chops, he delivered big hit after big hit that electrified the fans in Rogers Place. The next two seasons; however, the Oilers failed to secure a playoff spot. Nonetheless, Kassian continued to impress, improving on his offensive production, adding a career-high 15 goals in 79 games in the 2018-19 season.
The following year, he found himself in a peculiar spot— a mobile, big man with soft hands, head coach Dave Tippett experimented with him riding shotgun on the top line with Connor McDavid. That same year he took on a familiar role, once again becoming public enemy number one in the Calgary Flames’ eyes, adding fuel to the fire in the Battle of Alberta, engaging in infamous battles with Matthew Tkachuk.
Despite an underwhelming performance in the play-in rounds for the playoffs, the Oilers’ inked Kassian to a new four-year, $12.8 million deal that year. With a fresh new contract and a new career-high of 34 points, there were high expectations for him, entering the 2020-21 season.
He had a slow start to the season, producing only three points in the first 13 games and he played himself off of the top line. He didn’t appear engaged initially, and when it finally seemed like he was on the verge of turning his game around, he broke a finger in a fight with Erik Gudbranson.
Heading into the 2021-22 season, Oilers fans can expect Kassian to have a bounce-back season. He’s the type of player who excels in the playoffs, laying big hits and chipping in offensively. Most importantly, he’s the type of player that feeds off that energy off of the crowd. Looking back at the 2017 playoffs, he was throwing his body around heavily and playing to the crowd. At times, he was caught jumping into the plexiglass and engaging in celebrations with the fans. The fans loved that and it was evident they were a motivator for him.
Unfortunately due to the pandemic, NHL players have had to play in empty arenas for the better part of the last two seasons. This year, fans will be allowed back into arenas (fingers crossed), primed with pent-up energy to release and ready to cheer on their team. An electrified Rogers Place will be beneficial for Kassian and it will help him find his game that made him a favorite in fan’s eyes.
The former first overall pick will be entering his 10th season with the team that drafted him. Prior to winning the McDavid lottery, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins often found himself as the team’s number one center, taking the tough matches while trying to produce offense. Over the last few seasons; however, he has found a comfortable spot in a supporting cast, while being an effective member of the team’s secondary scoring.
Over the last couple of seasons, Tippett has tried Nugent-Hopkins on the wing with positive results. He saw an increase in points-per-game (P/G), from 0.84 P/G in 2019 and 0.93 P/G in 2020. Last season; however, his offensive production saw a dip and his P/G dropped to 0.67, placing him fifth in the team in scoring. Heading into the off-season, he was a pending unrestricted free agent. Luckily for the Oilers, he signed a team-friendly deal— an eight-year, $41 million contract extension with a cap hit of $5.125 million, down from $6 million.
While Nugent-Hopkins seemingly took a pay cut to stay with the team, there isn’t an expectation that his offensive production will decrease along with that. Although last season was a down year statistically, expect him to bounce back and have an uptick in production.
The Oilers led the NHL in power-play percentage last year at 27 percent, and Nugent-Hopkins was a big part of that. With the addition of Hyman, the Oilers have a player that can provide the dominant net-front presence on the power play, something that has been lacking since the prime days of Ryan Smyth.
With Hyman causing havoc in front of the net and making it tough for goalies to see, one can assume the Oilers will be converting at an even higher rate on the power play this year. With goalies screened, Nugent-Hopkins will have the opportunity to bury more of his deceptive snapshots from the left side, or picking up more assists— while others bury his juicy rebounds.
Going into the new season with his newly signed eight-year deal (which features a no-movement clause), Nugent-Hopkins will have the comfort knowing he will finish his career with the Oilers— if he so chooses. With less contract distractions, peace of mind knowing his stability with the team, new player additions, and the opportunity to play wing on a line with the last two Hart Trophy winners, expect Nugent-Hopkins’ point totals to increase this year.
First ever Ultimate MVP fan of the NHL as declared by Upperdeck – CBC Radio Oilers’ Fan Panel Analyst – Freelance Writer. Edmonton Oilers’ Sportswriter for the Hockey Writers.