At one point in the 2011 entry draft, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins went first overall to an Oilers team mired in a seemingly endless futility, there was a shining optimism that surrounded the player. A slight playmaking centre who was touted for his supreme hockey sense, the prevailing thought would have been that Nugent-Hopkins would deliver the Oilers to late season relevance. He acted as the pivot between the skilled wingers Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, helping the Oilers take their talents beyond the hypothetical and into reality.
Of course, so much has changed since that fateful day that the Oilers called Nugent-Hopkins’ name. Not only has the Oilers’ roster and reality shifted from the dark times that saw them picking first in the entry draft far too often, so too have the expectations of the player affectionately referred to as Nuge. No longer is the spotlight of franchise altering play cast upon him, no longer among the first name opposing teams circle on the depth chart. Nuge has faded, diversified, and grown into a much more nuanced role in the Oilers’ success.
At this point, even by the readers of this very publication, RNH is often thought of as being a deeper contributor, well illustrated by his being outvoted as the Oilers third most impactful forward in our Sunday Census. As much as the burdensome expectations of being a top entry draft selection might have weighed on the appraisal of RNH over his career, it appears as though he has been forgotten about to a certain extent amidst the improvements the Oilers have made over his tenure.
Is Nugent-Hopkins under-appreciated? It can be hard to know for sure, but together we will go over the key areas of his contributions in this, his 12th NHL season.
Nugent-Hopkins is able to use his playmaking abilities in any situation
Aforementioned in this piece is RNH’s extensive reputation as a passer. With a deft touch and fantastic vision, it is only the otherworldly playmaking talents of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and their subsequent usage rates, that leave Nugent-Hopkins’ own prowess in this area overshadowed. For those across Oil Country, this embarrassment of riches is a stark contrast to the lean years between the 2006 Cup Final and the 2015 entry draft.
Although not as show stopping and jaw dropping as his MVP teammates, RNH is able to leverage his playmaking skills all over the ice. Naturally, his work in the offensive zone displays this in memorable ways. Nuge finding teammates for open looks off of cross seam passes. Sure, the hype surrounding a first overall draft selection might come with more offensive expectations than the 28 goals, 41 assists, and 69 points that constitute his career season in 2018–19, but it is an accomplishment that he has maintained a pace of roughly 20 goals and 55 points for a decade. Lofty career marks of 1000 games and 700 points seem quite plausible, certainly a strong career for any player.
RNH finds himself a key piece of the Oilers’ effective top power play unit, primarily operating in the bumper position. The middle of the ice is a chaos of high density traffic, a role RNH fills quite well thanks to his strong vision, quick processing, and quality passing skills. Once again, McDavid and Draisaitl command a lot of the attention, but RNH brings a floor general type of presence, conducting the flow of play, and allowing McDavid and Draisaitl the freedom to work their magic. The pair of superstars might be good enough to constitute a dangerous power play either way, but no doubt the piece of mind RNH brings is to their benefit.
RNH is able to weaponize his linemates lower in the lineup with these same playmaking skills. As the Oilers’ depth has improved, he has found himself deeper in the lineup, at least at even strength, but has still been able to produce offensively. Classic third line wingers come in all shapes and skills, but often default to a game that is built more on will than skill. Wingers below a reputation as first line players have enjoyed some of their best work alongside Nugent-Hopkins.
In recent seasons, the likes of Zack Kassian, Warren Foegele, and to an extent Kailer Yamamoto and Zach Hyman, have seen improved production by the grace of RNH’s skills. Any turnovers these wingers create can quickly become quality scoring chances when the puck finds its way onto Nuge’s stick. For this reason, workmanlike wingers will always seem quite comfortable on Nugent-Hopkins’ line, even more so than the premium quality that might be necessary to effectively play alongside McDavid and Draisaitl.
RNH is reliable defensively
Speaking of his synergy with third line types, the offensive upside Nugent-Hopkins brings is well complemented by his ability as a defender in his own right. Long left to handle the grunt work when playing at 3C, RNH takes a lot of defensive tasks on, leaving McDavid and Draisaitl free for more offensive deployment.
Naturally, defensive zone draws, matchup assignments, and penalty killing are key areas that Nugent-Hopkins finds himself in. For these reasons, even when on a third line at even strength, RNH will see many minutes regardless. He is a top option on the power play and penalty kill, a rare feat made more impressive by his quality in both.
A growing trend among the league’s penalty killing tendencies as a whole, more and more “skilled players” are finding themselves in leading penalty kill roles. The skills that are most transferrable, in this exchange, are in vision and processing, hockey I.Q. per se. Knowing what the opponent’s top players are thinking allows RNH to break up passing lanes and pressuring opponents into mistakes.
The second part of the equation is vital too, as with possession in the defensive zone, RNH’s sees his poise and positioning essential to the Oilers’ transition game. Being able to get out of one’s own zone cleanly might be one of, if not, the most crucial areas of team defence as a whole. He is able to present himself as a support outlet, as well as making smart passes of his own, allowing his team to transition to attacking.
Though Nugent-Hopkins is not a towering and beast of a checking centre, his continued rounding out of his details have seen him effective in the role just the same.
Nuge shows a lot of versatility
Having outlined the offensive and defensive contributions Nugent-Hopkins provides, a bigger trend starts to come into focus: versatility. Over the years the Oilers have asked RNH to fill a variety of roles throughout the lineup. Once upon a time it might have been 1C, but at this point he’s found himself rotating as a 2C, a 3C, and a winger for either McDavid or Draisaitl. Positionally alone, it is quite clear that the Oilers have grown to expect RNH to fill in any role they throw his way.
Through it all, there has been no drama with RNH clearly putting his mind to whatever the team asks of him. His humility and disposition are a great value, a fantastic example even, for his teammates. His place in the lineup is more often borne of what he might do for his linemates as opposed to what might be best of him. Instead of sulking about the loss of offensive opportunities, RNH has instead diversified his skillset and moulded himself into the shape the team needed from him.
In a sense, Nugent-Hopkins is an apt personification the Oilers forward group as a whole should strive for. His positional and situational flexibility affords the Oilers’ coaching staff a great deal of freedom in constructing the lineup as a whole. There are, of course, others behind him to fill the spots that he is not, like Ryan McLeod or Derek Ryan, but Nugent-Hopkins does bring a level of quality that sees him stand out from this group.
While this versatility is quite valuable at full health, it becomes all the more crucial during the inevitable injuries that come over the course of an NHL season. The theme of reliability is present once more, as players, coaches, and fans alike are afforded a panacea, a Swiss Army knife, a Druid smooth and silky as the tape to tape cross seam passes the Nuge lofts towards his Oilers teammates.
To this extent, one might have to concede that RNH might not be the Oilers third best forward as he is their third most important forward. There is some stiff competition in this analysis, Evander Kane and Zach Hyman come to mind, but RNH is quite deserving of such consideration.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire