On a team with the star power that the Edmonton Oilers possess, it can be easy for others to take a back seat to the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. There have been times in his career when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins plays second fiddle to others, namely the two stars mentioned above. But regardless of how much attention he gets, he has been a steady and consistent presence for the Oilers for the past decade and has endeared himself to fans over the years.
There are a multitude of reasons why Nugent-Hopkins is not only the unsung hero of the Oilers, but also one of the more underrated players in the league. And looking at how he has been used throughout his career, could easily be the third most important player on the team. His tenure with the team and admiration from the fanbase will surely earn him a place in the Oilers’ Ring of Honour one day.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins career overview
Nugent-Hopkins stormed into the league, recording a hat trick in his third game, a five-point night in his 19th, and 52 points in 62 games total during his rookie year. He finished second in Calder voting, likely only losing due to missing time with injury.
The 29-year-old forward spent the next handful of seasons stuck at a plateau. He never really was able to break out as a superstar, maxing out at 56 points. However, he was the player that the team kept when the rebuild of the early 2010s failed and the current core was brought in. His quiet, steady presence in the locker room and growth within his game made him a valuable piece to keep around.
Said growth really began to show as the McDavid and Draisaitl era took off. Nugent-Hopkins no longer needed to be or was not expected to be a top-line, play-driving scorer anymore. He began to grow the defensive side of his game to complement what the rest of the lineup was not as skilled at. There was a time within the latter half of the 2010s where it looked like he was on his way to being a Selke-calibre player.
With this current roster, Nugent-Hopkins has shown just how versatile he is. In any given week or even game, he can find himself playing anywhere in the top-nine. Centring the third line for depth or playing wingman to McDavid or Draisaitl.
The 2022–23 season in particular has been an incredible breakout for Nugent-Hopkins. He has already set a career-high in goals, assists, and points and there are still 20 games left in the season. In addition, he has been a crucial piece of the Oilers’ historically dominant power play. In terms of career milestones, he hit the 200 goal mark back in October and just recently scored his 600th career point.
It’s not often that someone is on pace for nearly 100 points while sitting in the top-15 in league scoring but get as little attention as Nugent-Hopkins has this season.
Why Nugent-Hopkins is so loved by Oilers fans
There is something endearing about the quiet, hard-working player who shows up every single game and contributes in whatever way he can. Nugent-Hopkins is exactly that player. He slots in wherever the team needs him, plays in whatever situation he is asked to, and does it all while being quietly reliable and consistent.
When his offensive game stalled out and he never really became the offensive talent that his draft status may have suggested, he switched gears and found a role he excelled at by developing his two-way play, becoming a third-line centre, but still remaining versatile enough to jump up into the top-six in any position.
Fans adore players like this, someone who they can trust in any spot, role, or game situation. When Nugent-Hopkins steps onto the ice, it is usually time for a sigh of relief as fans know that the situation is in good hands.
Nugent-Hopkins is the longest-serving member of the Oilers, spending nearly 12 years with the team. He has been a beacon of consistency and stability during a turbulent and difficult-to-follow period of time. But each and every game, he brings a calm and stable demeanour to the rink, steps onto the ice, and does the best he can with what he has.
And let’s not forget this gem of a moment from earlier this week where he beats up Toronto Maple Leafs’ Justin Holl for laying a big hit on Kailer Yamamoto.
It’s the culmination of years of all of these factors that led to the #KeepNugeForever trend in the lead-up to his latest contract extension. There are always rumblings, rumours, and fears that the team would let him walk or wouldn’t be able to afford him. Oilers fans were not having any of it as they took to social media to voice their opinions on keeping Nugent-Hopkins.
Let’s just pretend it worked so the Oilers re-signed Nugent-Hopkins long-term at a very reasonable price.
Hopes for RNH’s future with the Oilers
This career season, in which he is on pace for around 100 points, is likely an anomaly. But with the league’s overall scoring drastically rising this season and the core of the Oilers hitting some of their most productive years, maybe Nugent-Hopkins can find a point-per-game pace in the coming years.
Something the Oilers could use, and what seemed to be the niche Nugent-Hopkins was going towards for a couple of seasons, is solidifying his defensive game and filling the role of a legit two-way forward. He started to work towards this a few seasons ago, and to this day is typically one of the more relied-on defensive forwards, especially on the penalty kill. So far in 2022–23, he is second in average time on ice per game while short handed amongst Oilers forwards according to Hockey Reference.
But it would be amazing to see him get to a point where perennial Selke Trophy contention is a part of his game. It gives him a clear specialty on the team aside from being a reliable scoring forward. And helps round out the Oilers forward core to give the group a balance between the top scoring forwards in the league and a top defensive forward as well.
Moving into the future, one thing that Edmonton has never had is a player with a lengthy career who only put on the Oilers sweater. With his current contract taking him through the end of the 2028–29 season when he is 36 years old, there is a chance that this is his last contract.
Something that the entire Oilers fanbase would absolutely love to see is the ability to let Nugent-Hopkins finish out his career with the Oilers, and not end up getting traded for the last season or two if he has regressed and is not performing at a level his price would justify. If Nugent-Hopkins was the first in Oilers history to accomplish a career solely playing in Edmonton and add that feat to his legacy, there would be absolutely no complaints.
Cheers to the unsung hero of the Edmonton Oilers, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins!
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire