As Peter Chiarelli continues to help the Edmonton Oilers establish a new culture, he continues to clean house year after year.
His first major move came in the 2016 offseason when he traded Taylor Hall to New Jersey in exchange for Adam Larsson. While the primary goal of this move was to acquire more depth on the blue line, the message was clear: the Oilers were changing. And in order to change, they had to start fresh, rebuilding with a new core.
Two seasons and one playoff berth later, Chiarelli is continuing to remove and add pieces to turn the Oilers into a championship contender. A little over a month ago, he got rid of another core piece in Jordan Eberle.
The struggling forward couldn’t produce well with the Oilers and found himself on the bottom-six. Chiarelli shipped him out to Long Island in exchange for Ryan Strome, another forward who finds himself in need of a change in scenery.
With Eberle and Hall gone, the Oilers will turn to Connor McDavid, as well as Leon Draisaitl, Patrick Maroon, Milan Lucic and company to fill the void and rise as the team’s new core. However, there is still one piece of the old core that still remains; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is still with the team.
Last Man Standing
When looking at Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins, Nugent-Hopkins is perhaps the player that has struggled most over the years. Hall was one of the Oilers’ top point producers and had consistent showings each year, and Eberle still hit the 20-goal mark this past year. Nugent-Hopkins, however, has struggled; his point totals have been on the decline, and he has battled injuries and other ailments.
The 24-year-old managed to dress for all 82 games this season, putting up 18 goals and 43 points. He was a minus-10 but had 48 takeaways for just 30 giveaways.
While his numbers aren’t impressive, there is a reason that Nugent-Hopkins is still in Edmonton, and though he may be on thin ice this season, it is vital that they are hanging onto him.
Nugent-Hopkins an Asset
First off, he is one of the reasons why the Oilers have such outstanding depth down the middle. Nugent-Hopkins can be flashy and has the potential to do more with the puck. Though he hasn’t shown that side of him of late, he plays very well with and without the puck and shows flashes of his outstanding stickhandling ability.
He is incredibly underrated in the fact that he has great hockey sense and can make highlight-reel plays, but where he truly shines as a two-way player. The 2011 first-overall pick takes great care of the puck and performs well at both ends of the ice. He can not only keep up with his opponents and win fights for the puck, but he rarely turns the puck over and can easily take it away and regain control.
Because of his backchecking ability, as well as how calm and collected he is with the puck, Nugent-Hopkins is a top-six centre, and a staple in the lineup. He is a player that the Oilers cannot do without, and that is one of the reasons why he hasn’t been shipped out yet.
In addition, Edmonton needs to have Nugent-Hopkins in their lineup, or they will lose a lot of stability and depth. Draisaitl may have the potential to carry the second line as a centre, but is a perfect fit playing on the first line on McDavid’s right wing. That leaves a vacancy for a second-line centre and that’s where Nugent-Hopkins comes into play. Behind McDavid and Draisaitl, he is the next-best centre the team has. And seeing that Draisaitl may stay on the first line, having Nugent-Hopkins is key.
Nugent-Hopkins on Thin Ice?
While Nugent-Hopkins is a proven asset in many ways, considering his versatility, backchecking ability and upside, he does need to improve in many areas of his game. In fact, if he can’t do more with the Oilers in a year’s time, he will certainly see a change in scenery.
The 6-foot, 196-pound forward is on the smaller side and is prone to injury. Because of his size, he cannot always match up well with his opponents. He shies away from physicality and relies on his stickhandling ability as his main line of defence, but he could stand to put on more size.
In addition, Nugent-Hopkins doesn’t play with the same zest or energy that he used to. He plays a safe game and doesn’t try to do too much with the puck, but doesn’t show off his full potential, nor does he try to be creative with the puck. While it’s better to be safe than sorry, this hurts Nugent-Hopkins’ value, as he is not showcasing his full ability. This has not only led to a decrease in production, but it has taken a shot at his overall value. He has also shown inconsistency from time to time.
If Nugent-Hopkins wants to remain an asset to the Oilers organization, he will have to toughen up, try to throw his weight around a bit more and take more risks with the puck. He is a very strong defensive forward and is still young, so there is still room for him to develop and grow his game. Still, if nothing changes, he could be on his way out sooner rather than later.