Ryan Nugent-Hopkins The All-Star: A Closer Look


In a season plagued by misfortune for the Edmonton Oilers, the play of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been one of the few joys left for fans. It is easy to focus on what has kept the team from progressing in the past few years to the top of the league’s standings.

A finger could be pointed at anything from mismanagement, misdirected coaching, suspect goaltending, weak forward depth, and on and on, but if you are a glass half-full type of person—such as myself—it’s much more enjoyable to take a positive out of three, or more, negatives.

Last Saturday saw the National Hockey League release their full roster for the 2015 NHL All-Star game, which will be hosted at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. The roster features a star-studded lineup, with the usual—and unusual—crowd favorites voted in by fans, or a horde of hockey-rap enthusiastic Latvians. Although some teams in the league may not contain the same caliber of players that say, the Chicago Blackhawks or the Pittsburgh Penguins possess, each team must send one representative to Columbus for the weekend.

Bring in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the second of three first-overall draft choices the Oilers have collected in the past five years, with the possibility of a fourth coming in Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel this June.

The NHL could have chosen any one of Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle or Taylor Hall to represent the team for this year’s all-star game, due to their team-leading play this season. However, the still-young 21-year-old that is “Nuge” is a solid choice for a number of reasons.

Statistically-speaking, it’s pretty easy to list what #93 does for the Oilers: he puts up points (11-14-25), plays the most minutes out of any forward in the league (21:15 TOI/G), takes an ample amount of faceoffs (383/425 for a respectable FO% of 47.4%), and drives the puck up ice offensively on a team that mostly plays in their own end (1.3 Relative Corsi).

The 2014-15 Oilers don’t have many players putting up above-average numbers in any statistical or analytical category, but Nugent-Hopkins has somehow managed to remain above water. The Oilers also have been widely-characterized as a club that does not adequately develop their young prospects, but Nugent-Hopkins has also negated that.

It’s important to consider the significance of the contributions Nugent-Hopkins makes to the team that cannot be defined by a number, graph, metric, decimal, exponent or BEDMAS equation – adding to his evolution as a player.

Nugent-Hopkins has made major strides in his development as a centre. Early in his career, when many believed he would be nothing more than an offensive catalyst, he expressed his desire to become a balanced player. Now, in his fourth year in the NHL, we have seen him mark his words and stick to them.

For one, Nuge’s defensive zone awareness has elevated considerably. If the puck is in Edmonton’s zone (which, unfortunately it generally is) he is able to monitor the play, support his defencemen and breakout the zone responsibly.

How about Nuge’s boots? We’ve become accustomed to seeing Nugent-Hopkins break away from players with his first three strides, which are explosive and allow separation from defenders. Nugent-Hopkins knew he would have to become a bit of a “bro” and hit the gym in the off-season for him to gain weight, and it has obviously advanced his skating abilities.

And what is probably the most important is Nuge’s willingness to play physically without getting injured. Since his first season—that would have seen him clutch a Calder Trophy if it were not for a freak shoulder injury—#93 has missed a total 32 games, with the majority of them in his first two campaigns in the league. Despite two games missed last year and two this season, Nuge’s durability hasn’t been questioned – a prominent notion going forward.

In addition, Nugent-Hopkins has seen improvement in the circle, beginning his career with a FO% of 37.5%, to 41% in ’12-13, 42.4% in ’13-14, and now at 47.4%. He has been hitting more, from 38 in ’11-12; 27 in ’12-13 (lockout shortened season); 72 in 13-14, and is on pace for 95 this season. As well as increasing his shot totals each year (134 in ’11-12; 78 in ’12-13; 178 in ’13-14, and on pace for 180 this campaign).

Many of the players lament making the trip out to All-Star Weekend, but perhaps this experience can revamp Nugent-Hopkin’s confidence. Also, who isn’t curious of his vision on the ice with two fresh all-star-quality talents in Columbus?

Even though the Oilers are still a losing squad, the transformation of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been imperative for the club, and will be moving forward. He is our most valuable pivot; a constant contributor; the intangibles he provides are significant, and his progression ongoing. Many may pass these aspects over apathetically, but I’m glad to see the National Hockey League did not.