Just how good is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? The answer to that question will go a long way to determining how strong a contender the Edmonton Oilers will be in the coming few years.
For now, the panelists here at the Copper & Blue have a range of opinions on where RNH's upside may lie.
Overall Nugent-Hopkins held fast at #3 in C&B's rankings, though he moved around a bit on individual lists. Of the four who previously had him at #2, JW and I maintained that rank, while Alan dropped him one spot to #3 and Ryan all the way to #4. At the other end of the spectrum, of the four who previously ranked RNH down at #5, Derek & DB kept him there, while both Ben and Michael both promoted him two spots to #3. The one moderate from last time, Scott, held fast at #3.
It was a busy year for the youngster, who gained valuable experience in a variety of settings around the hockey world in the twelve months following his 19th birthday in 2012 April. First came a trip to Helsinki after his stellar rookie season for a turn representing Canada at the World Senior Hockey Championships (8 GP, 4-2-6, +2). With the NHL shut down by the lockout, he started the 2012-13 season in Oklahoma City (19 GP, 8-12-20, +7), then headed for Ufa where he captained Canada at the World Juniors, while running away with the tournament scoring title (6 GP, 4-11-15, +6). When the NHL finally started up soon thereafter, Nugent-Hopkins' counting numbers were relatively unimpressive, though he remained a plus player (40 GP, 4-20-24, +3). Hampered for much of the year by a nagging shoulder issue, RNH was shut down after the Oilers were mathematically eliminated. His peripatetic campaign wound down in Cleveland, where he went under the knife to repair the damaged wing.
While one can look askance at those 2013 boxcars, Nugent-Hopkins has some nice up-arrows. According to behindthenet.ca he faced the toughest competition of any Oiler forward in 2013, and posted positive differentials in goals (+2.79/-2.49 per 60), shots (+33.9/-31.0), and Corsi (+58.9/-56.9). Of course this didn't happen in a vacuum: those results were largely recorded while playing with the best QualTeam, primarily on a dynamite line between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. Each posted a CorsiRel in the +20 range, far above a team that otherwise was dominated on the shot clock and scoreboard. All three are excellent players who performed better together than they did when separated.
A large portion of this success was the group's collective ability to retain possession of the puck. This past season my fellow C&B alumnus and present Cult of Hockey colleague Jonathan Willis tracked Oilers' Zone Entries, and observed Nugent-Hopkins to be the most likely centre on the team to retain possession of the puck when gaining the line, and the most efficient player on the entire team in terms of shots generated per zone entry. At the other end of the ice I tracked Zone Exits, where Nugent-Hopkins excelled, both in raw numbers of controlled exits and especially in percentages. The Oilers retained possession of the puck an astonishing 88% of the time on an RNH-led breakout, far ahead of any teammate at any position (Horcoff 76%, JSchultz/Whitney 74%, Hall/Eberle 72%). As this was a pilot project there's no way to compare this success rate with elite players on other teams, but on the Oilers it was nothing short of extraordinary.
For all that he handled the puck, RNH was charged with just 11 giveaways on the season, fewer than 15 other Oilers. He was also credited with 22 takeaways on the other side of the ledger for an excellent 2:1 TkA:GvA ratio. Among other Oilers with 30+ GP, only Hall (31 TkA, 29 GvA) was better than break-even.
By eye, Nugent-Hopkins is a 200-foot player who pays close attention to detail, and to process. He's an outstanding skater with exceptional edges, and puts those skills to good use whether he's supporting the puck, has it on his blade, or is in dogged pursuit of an opponent.
Like any young player, RNH has his weaknesses. He had a second brutal season on the faceoff dot (41%), and despite his diligent checking was overpowered in the occasional puck battle. He also had an exasperating season shooting the disc, firing high and wide far too often from prime scoring territory, missing the target on fully a third of his shot attempts while finding twine just four times all season long. It seems reasonable to expect that all of these concerns will be alleviated to a large degree by the corrective surgery, and/or eventually through the gradual build-up of "man strength".
One thing to be mindful of in the new regime is the presence of an actual "centres coach" in Keith Acton. This could well have a positive effect on both Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner.
A factor that is often omitted when comparing RNH to other #1 overalls in recent years is his relative youth. Since Erik Johnson was taken in the top spot in 2006, forwards have been chosen every year. Four of them - Patrick Kane, John Tavares, Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov -- have "late" birthdays and turned 19 early in their rookie seasons. Steven Stamkos has an early February birthday and was 19 by the mid-way point of his NHL debut -- and only after that did he really start to produce. Of the six who have graduated to the NHL, only Nugent-Hopkins was 18 for the duration of his rookie season. (It will be interesting to see how Nathan MacKinnon -- who doesn't turn 18 until Sept 1 and barely qualified for the 2013 draft -- will perform in his own upcoming rookie campaign.)
For all his relative youth, RNH's 0.75 points-per-game average through his first two NHL seasons is identical to Hall's at the same juncture, with both seeing their sophomore year end early for the same reason. If Nugent-Hopkins can return in 2013-14 to fashion a similar breakout campaign as Hall had this past season, things will be looking up in Oil Country.
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