Had it been up to me, the Oilers wouldn't have picked Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with the first overall selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Had I been the man in charge I would have taken the club in a different direction by adding an elite prospect to the Oilers blueline, something they lack currently; I would have drafted Adam Larsson. While it wasn't my choice I can't say that I was surprised when Steve Tambellini stepped to the podium and called Nugent-Hopkins' name as it was the worst kept secret in Edmonton in the days and weeks leading up to the draft.
However, despite my preference that the Oilers pick someone else, now that Nugent-Hopkins is an Oiler I want him to succeed because his success and the success of the Oilers are likely one and the same. It's been a long time since the Oilers were a hockey team capable of winning a Stanley Cup and perhaps the only thing we as fans can agree on is that we want the Oilers to be that again.
Just seven games into his NHL career it looks as if Nugent-Hopkins could play a significant role in remaking the Oilers into a contending team once again. Granted it's still very early but he's the team leader in both goals and points. He's being sheltered with favourable zone starts and has had his struggles in the Oilers end of the rink and in the faceoff circle but for an 18 year-old rookie his play has been surprisingly good. Regardless of the results though, if the Oilers want their best shot to be a contender and win a Stanley Cup, or maybe even a couple, they need to send Nugent-Hopkins back to Red Deer.
I don't like rebuilds. I think they're a convenient way for a GM to avoid having to take responsibility for his team's on-ice performance. My feeling about rebuilds aside, the Oilers are rebuilding so I've had to accept it. Part of that acceptance is knowing that the Oilers are not going to be a playoff team this season. In fact they're likely to be a very bad team this season that will probably be in the draft lottery at season's end, which of course means another high draft pick. We're getting good at this rebuild thing.
losing rebuilding is a ton of fun, at some point the Oilers will need to get back to the business of winning. For the rebuild to work out as planned the Oilers will need to find the right mix of youth and veterans, and like any team in the salary capped league, they will need to give themselves cap flexibility to make that happen. The easiest way to give yourself flexibility under the salary cap is to get significant production from players on entry-level contracts. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews still on ELCs, and Evgeni Malkin was in the last season of his ELC when the Penguins won the Cup the season before.
At this point in the rebuild the Oilers can barely see the playoffs on the horizon let alone a Stanley Cup Championship. Even the most optimistic projections don't have the team as legitimate contenders before the 2013/14 season and the season after might be a much more realistic option. If the fuse on Nugent-Hopkins entry level contract is lit this season it will be expire before the Oilers even have a realistic shot at a Stanley Cup. By that point Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi will all be onto their second contracts. To keep these players away from unrestricted free agency the Oilers will likely offer long terms and will try to pick up some unrestricted seasons on those second contracts, seasons that don't come cheap.
I'm not trying to be Chicken Little saying that if Nugent-Hopkins isn't returned to junior that the Oilers will have no chance to win after his ELC expires but the simple fact is that with fewer value contracts the margin for error in building a winning team gets smaller because the cap flexibility is gone. At Arctic Ice Hockey there was a similar debate around Mark Scheifele and I thought the argument against keeping him in the NHL was best summed up by the following statement: Cap management is the biggest skill a general manager can have in the NHL these days. It's inexcusable for them to intentionally hasten a player's UFA status. In the pre salary cap days maybe you could justify keeping Nugent-Hopkins on this team. But today the economics of it just don't make sense.
Of course, some fans and media members feel that other aspects outweigh the cap implications of keeping Nugent-Hopkins in Edmonton this season. Lets take a second to look at those quickly.
He's got nothing left to prove in junior - Last season Nugent-Hopkins had a very good season. Good enough to move him up the scouts' rankings to number one overall. But he didn't lead the WHL in scoring. He didn't win an individual award. His team didn't make it past the second round of the playoffs. He wasn't a member of the Canadian World Junior team. To say unequivocally that there is nothing that he could achieve in junior seems like a stretch to me.
It will hurt his development to go back to junior - Some people would have you believe that in junior Nugent-Hopkins will get lazy and complacent, and that his game will suffer as a result. This is a kid who has probably been the best player on his team since he was on a team. At any point along the way he could have slacked off and let his natural talent carry him but he never did. Because he's driven. If he goes back to junior that switch won't be suddenly turned off. Players like him just aren't wired like that, it's what made him a first overall pick in the first place. Will he be disappointed? Yes. Will it ruin him as a player? No.
He's the Oilers best option to centre the first line - That's quite the claim to make for a player that has been significantly protected in terms of zone starts and wins just 26% of his faceoffs. But ignoring those rather ugly numbers the fact remains that the Oilers have Sam Gagner, Shawn Horcoff, and Eric Belanger available to play centre on this team if Nugent-Hopkins isn't around. Gagner could be moved to the wing to make room but four years into his career, and with his contract expiring at the end of the season, wouldn't it be a smarter decision to make sure you know what exactly Gagner is now rather than later? Especially if it served the dual purpose of saving a cheap year for your future number one centre.
He's proven he can play in the NHL and he makes the Oilers better - Technically speaking I would say that both statements are correct. And if I thought Nugent-Hopkins was the difference between making the playoffs and being on the outside looking in for a sixth straight season I might agree. But he isn't that difference. With Nugent-Hopkins the Oilers are a bad hockey team; without him they are a crappier version of the same team. The rebuild is predicated on losing, so why do we suddenly care if we lose 55 or 50 games in a season? If the team was really serious about winning would Jeff Petry be in Oklahoma City while Cam Barker continues to drown up here?
Like it or not, Nugent-Hopkins should be sent back to junior for this season. It won't be an easy decision and it won't be a popular one either but it is the right thing to do for the franchise in the long term. It makes sense economically and the arguments for ignoring the economic benefit are flimsy at best. I'm a season ticket holder, I want to watch the best team possible but I will trade that for a better team down the road. That's what the rebuild is in a nutshell, if we're going to go through this we might as well get it right.