The 2006/07 season was my first as an Edmonton Oilers season ticket holder. Thanks to brilliant foresight/a remarkable stroke of luck I had made the commitment to be a season ticket holder in March the season before which allowed me to both cross off "Oilers season ticket holder" from my life's to do list and to secure playoff tickets for the remarkable run to the final that would start just a few weeks later.
In my wildest dreams I couldn't have guessed that the Oilers would play in the Stanley Cup Final that spring. In much the same way I couldn't have guessed that the next six years would be as bad as they've been. If I had known I'm not sure I'd have agreed to sign up for the experience. There have of course been great nights and great plays along the way but in my time as a season ticket holder they've been few and far between.
Last season though, while there still weren't as many great games as I would have hoped for there were more great plays than I had become accustomed to seeing and there was reason to think that the great nights might be on the way. And one player more than any other seemed to be responsible for creating most of those plays. That player is who we find at number two in The Copper & Blue's Top 25 Under 25 - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins came to the Oilers as the first overall draft pick in the 2011 Draft. He wasn't the player I had wanted the Oilers to draft but his offensive skills, especially those on the power play, came highly regarded so I felt he could probably help the Oilers offense somewhat. He was a teenager after all so expecting much more than that would probably be unrealistic.
Regardless of what we had been told Nugent-Hopkins could do his explosion onto the NHL scene was remarkable nonetheless. Though the first weeks of the season Nugent-Hopkins was one of the NHL's leading scorers and was named the NHL Rookie of the month in both October and again in November. It was more than even the most bright eyed optimist could have hoped for.
The downside to his early season numbers was (because there is almost always a downside) that the minutes Nugent-Hopkins, along with his line mates Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, were getting weren't the toughest available. Butter soft may have in fact been a better description but still the trio was regularly lighting the lamp and it became increasingly clear with each passing game that Nugent-Hopkins was a special talent.
As I wrote earlier Nugent-Hopkins seemed to be the player most responsible for the increase in the number of plays that left fans shaking their heads wondering how what they had just seen had happened. A few years ago Ales Hemsky seemed lead the Oilers in that category and heading into last season Hall was right on his heals but Nugent-Hopkins would be the player whose vision and passing ability set himself apart from the rest of the group in this aspect. He was e player you didn't want to look away from when he had the puck.
It wasn't a dream season for Nugent-Hopkins, an injury would derail his season slightly but He would still finish the year with 18 goals and 34 assists for 52 points on his way to being nominated for the NHL's Rookie of the Year. Although he would fail to win the award (it went to the Avs Gabriel Landeskog instead, Nugent-Hopkins finished third in the voting) Nugent-Hopkins' rookie season was a success by almost every measure.
So why then is Nugent-Hopkins only number two on this list? Well that has more to do with the depth of the Oilers system than any short comings on Nugent-Hopkins' part. Looking at the rankings above it may be hard to believe but Nugent-Hopkins is actually a more clear cut number two than he was when we did this six months ago. This time Nugent-Hopkins received a first place vote (the first Hall has failed to receive since being drafted) and only four more second place votes. By comparison Nugent-Hopkins received more third place votes than second place last time around.
I can't speak for the rest of the voters but personally at that time I was still very apprehensive about the competition that Nugent-Hopkins was playing against and the amount of points he was producing on the power play. I'm still not 100% sure we have the answers to all those questions but having seen a full season from Nugent-Hopkins I'm much more confident now in what exactly his high end is but I do still think that Hall is the man driving the bus so and so I ranked Nugent-Hopkins at number two.
Jonathan Willis, the voter who ranked Nugent-Hopkins at number one, sums him up this way:
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins benefited from most of the same things that Jordan Eberle did: he played against low-tier opposition (by-and-large), saw offensive zone starts and had a shooting percentage that was probably a little higher than he'll manage over the bulk of his career. However, he's also three years younger than Eberle. The entire list of 18-year old NHL'ers since 2000 to play at least 50 games and score at a better points/game rate is one name: Sidney Crosby. Kopitar and Toews managed the same performance, but at the age of 19. Perhaps most importantly, as Tom Renney elevated the defensive responsibilities of Nugent-Hopkins later in the year, his Fenwick rating actually improved - he performed better while playing tougher minutes. He's also a center which, all else being equal gives, him more value in general and certainly to the Oilers than playing on the wing. Finally, despite injuries this year he seems like less of an injury risk than the other guy going for the first overall position on this list. For me it was a close call, but Nugent-Hopkins is the last guy on the team I'd trade, and thus gets my vote as the Oilers' best player under the age of 25.
I didn't expect Nugent-Hopkins to have the rookie season he did. He exceeded my expectations and then some. So what lies ahead? For me I'd be happy if Nugent-Hopkins plays slightly tougher minutes and manages to duplicate his rookie season production. I'm sure others have loftier goals and if his rookie season was any indication those fans will probably be right.