Last night Ryan Nugent-Hopkins finished his fifth shift of the third period with just over seven minutes left in regulation. He wouldn't see the ice again. At the time of Nugent-Hopkins last shift the Oilers were trying to hold onto a one goal lead, a lead they would eventually lose in the game's final seconds. Keeping the youngster on the bench for almost half of the third period in that situation seemed to be an indication that Tom Renney simply wasn't comfortable with having him on the ice with the game on the line.
Before yesterday's game Jonathan Willis looked at how Renney has used his forwards on home ice and it's very clear that he is sheltering the youth. Zone starts also point to Renney leaving the defensive zone heavy lifting to more reliable veteran centres like Shawn Horcoff and Eric Belanger, while giving Nugent-Hopkins the easier starting position. Given Nugent-Hopkins struggles in the faceoff circle (24.1% on the season) and, to my eye at least, defensive zone coverage, this is a very reasonable strategy.
But the Nugent-Hopkins story took a rather surprising turn this afternoon when Dan Tencer tweeted that Renney might be looking to sit Nugent-Hopkins this Saturday if Sam Gagner is ready to return.
The idea that Nugent-Hopkins might not play on Staurday has left a few fans shaking their heads. He is after all leading the team in points and goals through the team's first six games and his relative Corsi ranks him third among the team's forwards, excluding Darcy Hordichuk and his 81 seconds of five-on-five ice time per game. So why would he not be in the line-up?
Allow me to speculate. On Tuesday in Calgary Nugent-Hopkins was over matched at times because Renney was unable to get the match-up he was looking for without the last change. If Renney is concerned about how other teams are going to try and exploit Nugent-Hopkins, perhaps he wants to see him play another road game. By sitting out a game that extends the nine game window and the Oilers play their tenth game of the season on the road in Colorado.
Or perhaps he's just looking to motivate the kid a little bit to see how he responds to the challenge. Granted he does have four goals on the season, but he hasn't been very great in either of the last two games and his hat trick versus the Canucks could have just as easily been one goal if not for a deflection and a goal that might not even have been his. I won't deny that they all count the same on the scoreboard but maybe Renney feels he's been a little lucky so far and doesn't want him to get complacent.
My preference since the day Nugent-Hopkins was drafted was that he play with the Red Deer Rebels in the WHL this season. This isn't an opinion that the majority of Oiler fans share and I've had my doubts that the Oilers would even consider it. But that Renney is contemplating taking a look at his team without Nugent-Hopkins makes me think there is a least a possibility, no matter how remote.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet. Sitting Nugent-Hopkins out for a night: good idea or bad idea?