Before he was selected first overall by the Edmonton Oilers in 2011, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins drew comparisons to exceptional NHL players. From Pavel Datsyuk to Wayne Gretzky, he was described as having elite vision, putting up 31 goals and 106 points in 69 games in his last year of junior.
Often, a first-overall pick will change the foundation of a franchise — such as Connor McDavid or Nathan Mackinnon — but 10 years after he was drafted, Nugent-Hopkins has settled into a valuable supporting role for the Oilers.
The Oilers are off to their best start since the 1985-1986 season, with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl sitting atop the NHL scoring race. In their shadow sits the versatile Nugent-Hopkins with 13 assists in nine games. He may not have scored, but his 1.44 points-per-game average (P/G) has him on pace for one of the most productive seasons of his career – registering 478 points in 656 games (0.72 P/G) before the start of the season.
Nugent-Hopkins Was Touted to Be Franchise Centre
No. 93 was expected to become the Oilers’ number one centre and his production level reflected that in his rookie season. His campaign was cut short due to injuries, but he still produced 52 points in 62 games for a 0.83 P/G. He was named a finalist for the Calder Trophy — awarded to the league’s top rookie — and many believe he would have won had he not missed 20 games.
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Nugent-Hopkins’ points per game declined after his rookie season. The Oilers were a young team with potential, but not good enough during Nugent-Hopkins’ first few years in the league. Management failed to surround him with solid and dependable veterans, and he was often punching above his weight class, going head-to-head with heavier centres in their division, such as Joe Thornton, Anze Kopitar and Ryan Getzlaf.
A young Nugent-Hopkins unselfishly sacrificed his offensive game to become better defensively and stop the team from bleeding goals. In his second season, he stated, “I want to improve offensively, but everything starts with defence. Last year coming in was a big adjustment for me. It’s such a different level from junior, and you have to be so much more cautious and smarter in the defensive zone. I learned a lot last year, and I want to keep learning and keep improving in that area.”
Nugent-Hopkins Has Settled Into a Supporting Role
The emergence of McDavid and Draisaitl has allowed Nugent-Hopkins to quietly get out of the spotlight and settle into a supporting role. Over the last few seasons, Oilers head coach Dave Tippett has played Nugent-Hopkins on either No. 97 or No. 29’s wing, which has increased his production. In 2018 -2019, he registered 69 points in 82 games (0.84 P/G), and in 2019-2020 he produced at his highest pace with 61 points in 65 games (0.94 P/G).
The Oilers’ Most Versatile Player
Nugent-Hopkins hasn’t netted a goal this season, but he’s passing the puck fluidly and finding teammates in prime scoring positions. While his name was once whispered in the same breath as Gretzky, this season he’s joined the Great One and McDavid in becoming only the third player in franchise history to register 10 assists in seven or fewer games (from, “Why Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is ‘Integral’ to the Oilers,’ Power Play and Vital to Their Overall Success,” The Athletic, 10/31/21).
McDavid and Draisaitl usually feature on the Oilers’ power play highlight reels, but Nugent-Hopkins is equally important with the man advantage because of the subtle plays he makes. He can bury the puck from the left side with his deceptive snapshot. If the shot isn’t available, he will make elusive and smart little passes. Whether it’s a drop pass to Tyson Barrie or a cross-ice feed to Draisaitl for a one-timer, he’s executing plays and has eight power-play assists this season.
Additionally, the Oilers’ penalty-killing unit has been admirable this season, ranking fifth in the league with an 88.9% efficiency. Nugent-Hopkins has been a big part of that success, getting his stick in the lanes and breaking up plays. He also has a short-handed assist after he picked up the puck off a broken play by the Arizona Coyotes and feathered a backhand pass off the boards to Zach Hyman, who scored.
The Oilers have finally reached their potential, with No. 97 and No. 29 leading the way as offensive juggernauts. While Nugent-Hopkins has a “franchise player” pedigree, given his draft status, he has settled nicely into his role as a strong supporting cast member. Whether he’s playing the wing or at centre, on the power play or penalty kill, he is the Oilers’ most versatile player, and he’s on pace to average over a point a game this season.