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Don’t Nickel-And-Dime The Nuge

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I’ve seen this movie before.

2011 NHL Entry Draft - Portraits Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

Do you remember February 27th, 2007? You probably do. I do too.

That penultimate day of February, 2007 was the day that the Oilers sent fan favourite Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders. It was a dark day for the Oilers. With the Oilers headed towards missing the playoffs (and Ryan Smyth needing a new deal), the club wasn’t going to risk losing him at the end of the year for nothing. So Kevin Lowe packaged him up and shipped him to New York for a less-than-scintillating return; one that included Ryan O’Marra, Robert Nilsson and a first round selection in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft that turned out to be Alex Plante.

It would soon emerge that the Smyth camp and the Oilers were pretty close to a new deal. A razor-thin margin separated the Oilers and Ryan Smyth’s ask, but it was apparently too rich for Kevin Lowe to stomach. So, out he went. It wasn’t well received by the fans, and it shouldn’t have been. The Oilers lost a top producer (Smyth had 53 points in 53 games to that point), the return was slim, and it was the unofficial signal to the beginning of the Decade of Darkness. Oh sure, the Oilers had Dustin Penner to fall back on. If you don’t know how that ended...it’s probably best for you. The Oilers lost a fan favourite and more importantly, a damn good player for the professional sports equivalent of crumbs.

As far as the return? Ryan O’Marra played in 31 games over three years for the Oilers. Robert Nilsson fared slightly better, scoring 98 points over parts of four seasons for Edmonton. Alex Plante was the fifteenth overall selection in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft and played in ten games for the Oilers in his career. You’re getting the gist of where I’m going with this return. It didn’t fit the bill. Remember this.

Let’s fast forward to February 17th, 2020. Nearly thirteen years later.

Well, well well. If it isn’t this again.

It’s been a weird year so far, but the Oilers are at least treading water in the North Division this season. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are having killer seasons, Jesse Puljujärvi has emerged too. Defence and goal are a mixed bag right now, but then there’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, third in scoring on the Oilers right now with 15 points in 18 games.

A natural centre, Nugent-Hopkins plays on the top line with Connor McDavid while Leon Draisaitl is holding the second line right now. It’s easy to forget that Nugent-Hopkins is a centre, something that comes in handy when you need one. Remember when the Oilers tried making Taylor Hall a centre for half a minute and it didn’t click? With Nugent-Hopkins, that already comes built in. That centre-currently-playing-left-wing will need a deal at the end of this year. The Oilers should pay the deal and avoid a similar mistake they encountered with another Ryan in 2007.

Nugent-Hopkins is a star. The Oilers are the only NHL club he’s played on, and unless 93’s ask is just through the moon it should be the only NHL club he ever plays on. Nugent-Hopkins is enjoying the fruits of playing alongside the best player in the NHL right now, but that’s something that the Oilers have had some trouble making happen over McDavid’s career. It worked with Pat Maroon for a while, it didn’t work with Milan Lucic (like, at all). Right now, Nugent-Hopkins and McDavid click. Having a winger that clicks with McDavid seems like a simple idea, but after seeing Ty Rattie and Alex Chiasson both give that a twirl to no avail, it underscores the importance of having the goods on the first line.

MAKING IT WORK

The good news is that the Oilers can absolutely afford paying Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2021-22 and beyond, even with a flat cap expected over the next few years. The Oilers are in good shape, but only as long as Ken Holland doesn’t pull another Stephen Weiss. The Oilers are expected to open the offseason with more than 25 million dollars in cap space. If they can avoid giving Adam Larsson or Tyson Barrie (who is really enjoyed playing on Edmonton’s power play as of late) extensions, then they’re giving themselves every opportunity to make this easy. The Oilers are not going to be in a cap crunch if they play this one right. If they give Barrie a long term extension however, all bets are off.

This is an easy call. Nugent-Hopkins is likely going to be the third highest scoring forward on this team this year. Going to trade him for a package of lesser players, or looking for cap relief by sending him away? Good luck trying to fish an equivalent out of the free agent pool. You know what you’re getting with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, it’s a safe bet that he’ll continue to bring what he’s brought on the top line for at least the next few years.

Get good players, keep good players. Sign Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, or risk making the mistakes of the past.