Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can focus on his defensive play as a No. 2 center. Image by: Andy Devlin/Getty Images
The Oilers are very likely bound for the playoffs for the first time in a decade, and former No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be crucial to their success.
Without a doubt, the resurgence of the Edmonton Oilers this year is being driven by Connor McDavid. The sophomore phenom is in position to win the Art Ross or the Hart or both, while his team is firmly locked in a playoff position for the first time in more than a decade.
I feel at this point we're past talking about if the Oilers will make the post-season and can move on to what they will do once they arrive there. Because as great as McDavid has been for the offense, the Oilers will need balance. And that’s where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins comes in.
Remember the Nuge? He’s not exactly obscure, being a No. 1 overall pick overall. But like fellow Edmonton lifer and linemate Jordan Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins has toiled in Alberta for years without playoff hockey. That’s about to change and for a player who has largely been out of the limelight for some time, Nugent-Hopkins will be crucial to Edmonton’s long-term success this season.
Right now, Nugent-Hopkins is below his usual career offensive clip, but the Oilers are also winning a lot more and have a healthy McDavid in the lineup ahead of him.
“Every team in the league has two or three scoring lines now, it seems,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Obviously Connor’s a great player and I want to produce offensively as well, but I have to be a 200-foot player and grow my defensive game.”
Nugent-Hopkins is a decent possession player and is better on faceoffs than McDavid, though neither is great. The Nuge can take on tough defensive assignments and that will be important going forward, unless the Oilers bolster their forward corps with a trade for another responsible center.
It’s interesting to see where Nugent-Hopkins is at this point in his career. He was the top prospect in the 2011 draft, though it wasn’t a fever year in that regards – while Adam Larsson and Gabriel Landeskog were also thought of highly, the best players to date from that class are probably Johnny Gaudreau (104th overall), Nikita Kucherov (58th) and Mark Scheifele (seventh).
Nugent-Hopkins was seen as a slight player with incredible vision who may have needed one more year of junior before hitting the big time, but he bucked those predictions and went straight to Edmonton, earning All-Rookie Team honors in the process.
Unfortunately, in the center’s six NHL seasons, he has already had six coaches with the Oilers. That’s one of several factors that have kept Edmonton out of the playoff picture and undoubtedly hurt the development of some players (Nail Yakupov comes to mind). But with Todd McLellan now in his second year with the squad, Edmonton has a coach who has seen a fair share of playoff games and owns a Stanley Cup ring from his days as an assistant coach in Detroit.
“He’s been great,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “He’s definitely an experienced guy, being in San Jose for a lot of years. He brought that to us – we were a younger team and we still are. He keeps us accountable and definitely teaches us, so it’s good.”
The next step will be the most fun and the most daunting. All of a sudden, there are expectations for the Oilers outside of Northern Alberta. We all want to see how this team will handle playoff hockey and while McDavid is the head, he can’t be expected to go it alone. Cam Talbot must be great in net and the defense will have to hold up. If Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle can be that secondary scoring threat while also playing sound 200-foot hockey, the Oilers will be more than just a nice story in the post-season.