Libin takes a look at what’s next for Oilers' forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Leon Draisaitl’s emergence has sparked rumours about Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (RNH) being shopped by Edmonton. Recently it was reported that he was offered to Nashville for Seth Jones, but the Predators preferred Ryan Johansen. This is in line with what appears to be a significant halt in the development of Nugent-Hopkins’ offensive arsenal. His production rate has remained the same constant he came into the league all while getting top line minutes over the last three years. Despite a promising start to his career Nugent-Hopkins has been surpassed within his own team on the center depth chart. With the recent news that he is being shopped it seems as good a time as any to evaluate what can be expected from Nugent-Hopkins going forward.
With RNH being shopped it is all the more likely that he will be expected to take on the third line center role upon the return of Connor McDavid. With McDavid injured there are still two traditional scoring lines on the Oilers so it is unclear what to expect when from the third line center when McDavid returns. It would be tough however to roll McDavid, Draisaitl and RNH as three scoring line centers given how each has been used this season. They have each received significantly more offense zone starts than the bottom six centers, with McDavid being the only one to receive less than 15 minutes per games at even strength. The Oilers’ bottom six centers receive about 10 minutes per game at even strength and get buried defensively. RNH can least afford a more defense-centric usage as his production rate at even strength is half that of McDavid or Draisaitl. While the bottom centers, Letestu and Lander, are significantly less talented than RNH they struggle to reach even half his production rate in their current roles. With RNH being the most experienced, and best on faceoffs, of him, McDavid and Draisaitl it would make sense for him to be looked upon to take on more of the defense zone starts, but given that he already struggles to drive play that does not bode well for his production should that happen.
With each of the big three centers in Edmonton averaging close to 20 minutes overall something will have to give with ice time. RNH looks like the most likely candidate to lose the most even strength minutes, as all will undoubtedly lose some minutes. The reason RNH is a strong candidate to lose the most minutes is that he is already fifth amongst the team’s forwards in short handed minutes with McDavid and Yakupov still to return to the lineup. That means that at least one of the four forwards with more minutes on the penalty kill will likely start to see more time in the press box. Three of them, Matt Hendricks, Lauri Korpikoski and Anton Lander are already 10th, 11th and 12th respectively in per game ice time of the forwards who have played 10 or more games. Zack Kassian has also been recently added and has averaged more ice time than the three aforementioned low men on the totem pole while not receiving any notable time on the penalty kill. With no one else on the team receiving even close to a minute per game on the penalty kill RNH could see a portion of his even strength minutes re-directed to time spent short handed.
A more defense-centric role for RNH would leave him even more reliant on the power play than he currently is for much of his production. The good news is that currently Mark Letestu has been getting two minutes per game on the power play with McDavid out of the lineup. Assumedly that is in no small part because of his prowess taking faceoffs. RNH is not far behind Letestu at taking faceoffs, winning 51% of his faceoffs to Letestu’s 53%. Theoretically that should guarantee RNH a spot on the power play as both McDavid and Draisaitl are below 50% and McLellan seems to value having a center who can regularly win faceoffs on the power play as Lander also gets more than a minute per game on the power play. That may not be enough to keep RNH on the top power play unit but the Oilers have recently been running two relatively equal units with one based around Hall and Draisaitl and the other based around RNH and Eberle. As such it should not matter which unit RNH ends up on unless McDavid’s return drastically shifts the balance of minutes between the two units. As it is RNH has the second highest power play production rate on the Oilers while receiving the third most minutes. The fact that his unit also includes Benoit Pouliot does not guarantee anything but it could mean that McDavid goes to that unit first. Given McLellan’s preferences and RNH’s abilities his power play minutes, and production, look to be pretty safe.
Is there hope in a trade?
With the gloomy picture laid out above for RNH’s future once McDavid returns it would seem that the best hope is for a trade to a team where he can be a top six, if not a number one center. With RNH in his fourth full season in the NHL it should be possible to ascertain how well he would do on another team. He has been very consistent in his time with the Oilers, there has not been much variation in his overall rate of production. In three of his five years he has averaged 2.1 points per 60 minutes overall, with the only exceptions being his rookie seasons and this year. There are some concerning signs though as his personal shot rate and the Oilers’ shot rate with him on the ice has stagnated at 28 shot per 60 minutes at even strength, meaning that since the lockout season it has not even reached the level it was during his rookie season. The Oilers’ scoring chance rate with him on the ice is even more concerning as it has fallen by three per 60 minutes since his 2013/14. He is getting well under the three scoring chances per game he got last year. Given that his scoring chances are falling off faster than his shots it is no surprise that his shooting percentage is down.
RNH cannot blame his recent struggles on linemate or usage. His usage is still very offense-centric as was laid out above and his linemates have been the best the Oilers have to offer. At the end of last year he and Jordan Eberle were amongst the hottest in the league but have largely failed to rekindle that chemistry this season despite being paired up for most of the season. Given that he was by far his most with Eberle on his line last year the fact that Draisaitl is playing with Hall should not be a major consideration his RNH’s struggles this season. He also cannot blame McDavid for stealing the best linemates as McDavid and Draisaitl barely overlapped and McDavid played most of his minutes with Yakupov and Pouliot. All this leads to the conclusion that a 50 to 60 point RNH is more the reality than the build-up to the next step. That would make him a low end first line center to high end second line center as opposed to the elite first line center the Oilers envisioned when he was drafted. This can also be seen in his closest comparables as can be found on war-on-ice.com. The most encouraging is a 20 year old Patrick Kane, however the bulk of the recent ones are 2013/14 Mike Santorelli, 2014/15 Andrew Ladd and 2014/15 Ryan Callahan. The Patrick Kane comparison is lofty as Kane’s shot rate and scoring rate were, and have remained, considerably higher.
All this suggests that while RNH would be much better served by a trade than by the Oilers rolling three scoring lines a trade likely will not be the launching pad it was for Tyler Seguin. RNH does not have the elite level shot rate that would suggest that all he needs is a change of scenery. He also does not fit the mold of the prototypical pass-first forward that would generally be able to overcome an average shot rate en route to putting up big points. RNH fits somewhere in the middle and as such puts up points somewhere in the middle of a first and second line center. As it stands now the things he does well likely make him the third line center when McDavid and as such he would see increased defensive responsibilities. There also does not seem to be the interest in him, or a defenseman available, that would entice the Oilers to trade him. This adds up to a down year for RNH but the specter of a trade does not look to be a big boon for him either.