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Replacing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

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So you've decided to trade away Nugent-Hopkins. Now what?

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

It still boggles my mind that Nugent-Hopkins is being considered as expendable as the Oilers are only now, after a very long time, having some semblance of depth at the center position. Having said that, if the right deal is in place, no one on this roster, except for McDavid, should be considered untouchable.

My reasons for keeping RNH are pretty straighforward: centers are hard to come by, especially when they're 22 and already have over 4 years of NHL experience playing against the best opposition and posting some very nice numbers at even-strength.  Nugent-Hopkins has scored 125 points at 5v5 since 2011, which ranks him 37th out 221 centers who have played over 100 games in that time period (Source: War on Ice).

Season Team Gm TOI/Gm G-A-P P/60 CF% Rel SCF% Rel GF% Rel ZSO% Rel
2011/12 EDM 62 13.84 14-14-28 1.96 2.35 5.96 10.68 14.18
2012/13 EDM 40 14.78 2-9-11 1.12 7.82 8.92 8.21 5.58
2013/14 EDM 80 14.85 11-20-31 1.57 1.07 1.96 6.94 19.11
2014/15 EDM 76 15.25 19-18-37 1.92 2.65 3.89 11.17 16.82
2015/16 EDM 46 15.13 5-13-18 1.55 -1.47 -2.76 3.31 5.51

The team tends to do better when it come to possession (shot attempts), scoring chances and, most importantly, goals when RNH is on the ice. This season has been a tough one as the young pivot has battled some injuries. But as we see below, he has a history of success indicating, to me at least, that he'll be bouncing back, similar to what Hall did this year after a disastrous 2014/15 season.

Losing RNH would leave the Oilers with two very young centers in the top six, with some very fringe players in Mark Letestu and Anton Lander serving in a depth role. Ideally, you keep RNH and have three scoring lines OR, you have two centers on the same line and adjust their position based on different game situations (similar to what McLellan did in San Jose with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski). This gives the coaching staff plenty of options, and makes the lives of opposing teams miserable from a match-ups standpoint. Factor in the likelihood of injuries occurring next season, and management has  to be reluctant to deal away one of the best young centers in the game.

If you still need convincing, below are a few articles that support the notion that trading RNH would be a terrible, terrible idea.

But let's for a moment entertain the thought of trading Nugent-Hopkins to fill a void elsewhere on the roster and consider what the options would be if the Oilers look for another centerman.

Since Draisaitl and McDavid are early in their careers, you'd think that the Oilers would look for a more experienced pivot who can take on the tough assignments, has a history of driving possession and scoring chances, and has the ability to produce points. And since RNH was deemed too expensive at $6 million per season, I'd assume the ideal replacement should have to come at a lower price point.

To find a good fit, I took a look at every center that will be available through free agency this summer, as well as centers who have a solid track record of being a depth player and may be on the trade block. I focused on the past five seasons and considered the annual average value of contracts. Here are the names I came up with, with their WARRIOR charts from Own the Puck in the Appendix below.

Frans Nielsen

The 31 year old has been, in my mind, one of the best depth centers in the league for a long time and is heading to free agency this summer. Playing behind the likes of John Tavares in Brooklyn, Nielsen regularly takes on the tougher opponents and doesn't have nearly as many offensive zone starts as his teammates. Despite this, Nielsen has proven to be a fairly durable player who can produce on a consistent basis.

Season Team Gm TOI/Gm G-A-P P/60 CF% Rel SCF% Rel GF% Rel ZSO% Rel
2010/11 NYI 70 11.61 5-18-23 1.70 6.07 8.32 11.70 -5.35
2011/12 NYI 82 12.22 12-19-31 1.86 2.19 -0.33 12.34 -6.94
2012/13 NYI 48 12.7 3-15-18 1.77 -4.50 -7.33 -3.68 -5.12
2013/14 NYI 80 11.72 15-16-31 1.98 1.46 0.39 -2.14 -5.93
2014/15 NYI 78 11.46 8-13-21 1.41 -0.76 -1.65 2.23 -8.01
2015/16 NYI 57 11.59 8-10-18 1.64 2.86 2.20 0.38 -10.25

The issue with Nielsen is that he's 31 and is likely looking for his last NHL contract. I suspect that he'll get a bump from his current $3.5 million annual salary this summer, but could potentially look for term as well.

Darren Helm

The 29-year old has been a solid depth player for the Red Wings since he broke into the league in 2007 while Todd McLellan was assistant coach in Detroit. Helm plays a physical style, sees a regular dose of the best opposition and has still posted some okay underlying numbers.

Season Team Gm TOI/Gm G-A-P P/60 CF% Rel SCF% Rel GF% Rel ZSO% Rel
2010/11 DET 82 10.01 9-17-26 1.90 2.11 3.10 1.43 -0.88
2011/12 DET 68 11.86 9-17-26 1.93 1.29 0.15 -6.76 0.67
2012/13 DET 1 8.33 0-0-0 0.00 -1.05 13.81 NA -28.75
2013/14 DET 42 11.78 9-7-16 1.94 0.72 -0.38 1.48 -2.22
2014/15 DET 75 12.24 8-12-20 1.31 5.15 3.14 -1.32 1.83
2015/16 DET 54 12.33 6-8-14 1.26 0.35 -0.17 -1.24 -10.94


He's coming off of a 4-year, $8.5 million contract, and will likely command term and salary this summer when he hits free agency. It's hard to imagine the Wings letting Helm reach free agency, but it's something to keep an eye on if RNH ever had to be moved.

Lars Eller

Now for the non-UFA's. Eller has been mentioned in a few rumors now despite being a good depth player with decent possession numbers. His point production isn't the greatest, but the 26 year old is good at suppressing shot attempts at even-strength (see Appendix). His PDO has been low this season, sitting around 95.6, which indicates he's having some bad luck and might be undervalued for it.

Season Team Gm TOI/Gm G-A-P P/60 CF% Rel SCF% Rel GF% Rel ZSO% Rel
2010/11 MTL 77 10.72 7-8-15 1.09 -0.23 -1.62 -7.07 0.89
2011/12 MTL 79 12.2 11-10-21 1.31 -0.82 -2.21 -6.85 -0.16
2012/13 MTL 46 11.98 7-18-25 2.72 -4.08 -3.49 7.14 -2.50
2013/14 MTL 77 12.77 8-12-20 1.22 1.76 0.39 -15.69 -1.36
2014/15 MTL 77 12.96 12-9-21 1.26 -1.53 -2.38 -11.60 -12.25
2015/16 MTL 59 11.9 8-7-15 1.28 2.47 2.43 -11.70 6.07

Eller is signed for $3.5 million per season for the next two years after this one, making his contract very easy to manage. Definitely someone to consider if a depth center is needed in Edmonton.

Mikael Backlund

Yes, trading for Backlund is unlikely considering he's in Calgary, but he's still worth mentioning as a potential depth centerman. He's playing second line minutes but often starting in the defensive and neutral zone. Good things tend to happen for the Flames when Backlund is on the ice as shot attempts, scoring chances and goals are more likely to occur.

Season Team Gm TOI/Gm G-A-P P/60 CF% Rel SCF% Rel GF% Rel ZSO% Rel
2010/11 CGY 73 10.24 8-12-20 1.61 6.71 7.90 1.53 1.10
2011/12 CGY 41 12.63 2-6-8 0.93 5.40 3.72 -15.06 -4.38
2012/13 CGY 32 12.85 6-5-11 1.60 4.57 4.76 -1.84 1.06
2013/14 CGY 76 13.89 7-13-20 1.14 7.29 6.39 9.57 -2.69
2014/15 CGY 52 13.6 6-14-20 1.70 2.08 3.84 -1.96 -9.30
2015/16 CGY 57 12.56 6-13-19 1.59 4.51 5.03 9.55 -1.00

Backlund, similar to Eller, is only 26 and is signed for another two seasons after this one at an AAV of $3.75 million. Another nice contract, but acquiring him would require a lot of creativity by the Oilers.

Thoughts

It should take a lot to move a valuable asset like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins this off-season. The young pivot is having a bad year, but based on his past experience, we should expect a bounce back in 2016/17. He's a solid two-way player who can play against  the best in the league and should be part of the core going forward. If for whatever reason the Oilers do move him, there are some decent options available through trade and free agency that could play second/third line roles. My preference would be one of Eller or Backlund. The main objective here was to determine what the team requirements would be if Nugent-Hopkins was traded away mainly to set parameters and determine realistic targets.

Appendix - WARRIOR Charts