These are interesting days for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the Edmonton Oilers. He is the longest serving player on the roster and the guy who has had to endure more than anyone else over during his eleven seasons with the organization. Over the years, the ask shifted from season to season but the club still views him as a major piece of this puzzle moving forward.
The question now becomes, what part will Nugent-Hopkins be asked to play? What the team manages to do with the roster over the course of the off-season will play a part in that decision but we are essentially talking about three roles. RNH will either be a complimentary winger inside the top six or the Oilers’ second or third line centre.
If we are being transparent here, the argument could be made that Nugent-Hopkins has never been able to drive a line at even strength during his NHL career. Part of that was due to circumstance and part of it falls back on him never developing into that guy at this level. In his defence, his lot in life was altered the second Connor McDavid came into the picture but that’s of no consequence in the here and now.
Taking his entire body of work into consideration, using Nugent-Hopkins as a second line centre on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations in 2022-23 would most likely be a bad bet to make. With that being the case, it should come down to the best fit for the lineup. With the trio of McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan McLeod already here, the writing appears to be on the wall.
Again, unless something drastic occurs over the coming months, Nugent-Hopkins will find himself back on the wing inside the Oilers top-six and he’s going to need to rediscover his scoring touch. Over four of the last three seasons, he’s been a guy who could score goals on the power play but the one year in which that didn’t happen was this year, scoring one time in 63 games.
Yes, he continued to pile up assists on the man advantage but the Nuge has lit the lamp a grand total of 14 times at even strength over his last 115 regular season games. Pretending as if that isn’t an issue is ridiculous and it’s something that has to be addressed. At this stage in his career, if he’s going to be used on a line with either McDavid or Draisaitl, putting the puck in the net is an absolute must.
In a perfect world, he reverts back to the consistent goal-scorer at evens we’ve seen for much of his career and all will be good again. However, if Nugent-Hopkins can’t do it, keeping him in said spot could prove problematic. For me, it comes down to pairs and for this to work; Edmonton would be best served to use McDavid with Zach Hyman on their top line and Drasiaitl with RNH anchoring the second.
If the Oilers can make that work, it would allow for the two remaining spots on the wing to potentially be given to players with a specific skill-set. We just saw what a player like Evander Kane was able to accomplish in that role. The chances of Ken Holland finding a replacement who will be as good a fit or as productive seems unlikely but finding a different solution, that still works, is far from impossible.
Option two, would see using Nugent-Hopkins as the team’s third line centre but with due respect to the four-time 20-goal scorer, when given the opportunity during the playoffs, McLeod looked better suited for the role. The kid’s performance coupled with his speed, smarts and comfort with head coach Jay Woodcroft makes him a natural for the spot and moving him would be a mistake.
That isn’t to suggest we couldn’t see McLeod and RNH play alongside one another and potentially give the Oilers one heck of a third line. In order for that to happen, Holland would need to land a winger via trade or free agency to use inside the top-six and have two of Dylan Holloway, Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto show they could carry the load full-time on the top two lines.
Could that happen? Of course it could and adding one of those three onto a line with McLeod and Nugent-Hopkins would give Woodcroft an embarrassment of riches. Though one would hope the guy who is signed for another seven seasons at just over $5 million per could help lighten the expectation on some of the younger players over the next handful of seasons...at least that should be the expectation.
It was one of the reasons the Edmonton Oilers were comfortable in making Ryan Nugent-Hopkins a big part of whatever the future holds. This past season didn’t go nearly as well as either side had hoped but the team still did well. Now it is up to the player to make this work. You can bet he will be given plenty of opportunity and what RNH manages to do with it, may dictate how next season ultimately plays out.