Another top 3 finish has become par for the course for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The former #1 overall pick from the 2011 NHL Draft is considered by most to be the franchise's most valuable asset other than Taylor Hall. Given that Hall has begun to establish himself as one of the premier wingers in the game at this point, I would go as far as to say that Nugent-Hopkins development may be the team's most important project in the present tense.
RNH is unquestionably the team's best offensive centre (an extremely low bar at this point) and his skill level in the offensive zone is absolutely among the league's elite. The name of the game for Nugent-Hopkins in 14/15 is to learn to drive the play. If he can begin to do so consistently, I would suspect he would be in for a breakout season.
It might sound silly to say that a player who is firmly entrenched as the team's top line centre is in need of a breakout season, but RNH has held that position by default basically since he entered the league. After initially being given sheltered offensive minutes, his assignments have gradually gotten more difficult, but he has not yet been able to contribute to a line that can break even consistently in those difficult situations.
That is certainly not his fault entirely as the team's overwhelming lack of depth has made it easy for opposing coaches to key on his line with their best defensive match-ups whenever possible, but the fact remains that if RNH wants to be seen as a true #1 Centre in this league, he's reached a point where he has to be able to help his line swim upstream with some success, no matter how strong the resistance is.
When citing RNH's shortcomings, the inevitable "he's not big" comment comes up, but there's an old (and somewhat cliché) saying that "its not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog" that matters. You can take that to mean hitting and physical play if you wish, but to me, it means tenacity and a relentless need to own the puck. RNH has shown flashes of it in the past and it is the part of his game he needs to solidify to really take the next big step to being a star player. As a teenager, RNH was often compared to Pavel Datsyuk. That's a pretty high bar to reach, but if Nugent-Hopkins can find some measure of that puck retrieval skill to complement his offensive prowess, then the Oilers might have the pivot they've been hoping for.
The reason to focus on RNH's ability to create additional possessions is because the thing that holds Nugent-Hopkins back is a lack of offensive zone opportunities. That might sound bizarre at first, but not so much once you stop and think about it. The coaches actually handle RNH's deployment reasonably well from this standpoint, starting his shifts in the offensive zone 59% of the time. However, the Oilers' top line still (I'm sure this will come as a shock to everyone) doesn't generate a high enough share of the shots in 5v5 situations. The thing that the Hall-RNH-Eberle line needs to figure out is how to retrieve the puck and get back to the offensive zone more quickly when turnovers inevitably happen over the course of a game. I'll pause to repeat that because it is worthwhile. Turnovers are inevitable in hockey...its the ability to get the puck back and get right back on the attack that holds RNH back from being a point-per-game player at this stage in his career. Finding a solution to that issue would allow him (and Hall and Eberle) to achieve the lofty scoring totals they are capable of.
Taylor Hall (despite an odd run in the middle of last year) is a proven performer at generating controlled offensive zone entries, and while you might not know it, RNH is pretty decent at it too. Using some partial season stats published by Jonathan Willis last spring, you can see he successfully crosses the blueline with possession better than 70% of the time when he does attempt to do so, but only carries the puck through the neutral zone about half as often as #4. Once inside the zone with control, RNH is among the best in the business. He's a wizard inside that blueline.
So, you've got a line where two players can penetrate the offensive zone on more than 70% of their attempts (Eberle is also over 60%) and once inside the zone, have elite offensive potential that converts on their opportunities at slightly above average rates. Sounds good, right? The missing ingredient here is simply creating more attempts. That means winning races to the puck and loose puck battles, creating takeaways and limiting the length of controlled offensive zone possessions for the opposition.
So, during the early part of this season, while you watch the Oilers try to finally take a step towards closing the cavernous gap between where they're coming from and where they want to go, have a look at the Nugent-Hopkins line and pay attention to how many possessions they are creating during the course of their shifts (not as they come off the bench). If you find yourself counting a lot of them, you've got some reason to hope for better days ahead.