Nugent-Hopkins must master draws to justify salary, role on Oilers

Oilers centreman Ryan Nugent-Hopkins joined After Hours and spoke about elevating his two-way game and what it was like gaining muscle after coming into the league as the “skinny kid.”

PITTSBURGH — The anticipation of Tuesday’s semi-annual meeting between two former No. 1 overall draft picks simmers in Pittsburgh, ready to pique Monday morning after the Steelers game on Sunday has passed.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins knows the hype. Even if it is now reserved for others, the swirling trade winds floating his name again as the Montreal Canadiens struggle.

Six years after that quizzical 2011 National Hockey League Draft in which Nugent-Hopkins went No. 1, the stage here clearly belongs to Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. Meanwhile Nugent-Hopkins quietly re-develops his game as a two-way centre, coming off a 43-point season that wasn’t half as productive as either McDavid (100 points) or Crosby (89) in 2016-17.

Today, Nugent-Hopkins is more Mike Peca than Mike Bossy, more Guy Carbonneau than Guy Lafleur. “Since I came in, things have changed,” he admits, not unhappily but well aware of the challenge.

Today, if you could sneak a peak at Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli’s organizational white board, you would find Nugent-Hopkins’s name third on the depth chart at centre ice, behind McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. When you are making $6 million annually for the next four seasons, that is an issue.

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But Nugent-Hopkins’s path is his path, his evolution as a player a natural thing. Some first-overalls become superstars capable of carrying a team, while others go team to team as they descend in the lineup.

Nugent-Hopkins, like most, is simply a very good hockey player who could play on any team in the NHL. He’s not great, but he’s above average, and has found the role in Edmonton that Jordan Staal once held in Pittsburgh behind Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Like Staal, he’s a 45-to-50-point player. He has the foot speed and smarts to check the game’s stars — though beating them in the faceoff circle is still an issue — and the skill to create some offence from that role.

He’s on the second powerplay unit now, and killing penalties. Nugent-Hopkins’ doesn’t need a road map to see where this is going, and in fact has learned to embrace his role on this team.

“I want to be that two-way guy,” he said. “Last year was a transition for me, but I thought I helped the team succeed. I still want to be relied upon, but I want to be relied upon at both ends a bit more.”

He is just 24, but with 402 NHL games played. It’s fair to describe this player the way we have, to declare that the seven-year, $42 million deal former GM Craig MacTavish signed him to was too rich, and too long.

Like Taylor Hall and (more so) Jordan Eberle, whose contracts were nearly identical, the exit ramp from Edmonton may well be paved in dollar bills for Nugent-Hopkins. McDavid’s $12.5-million salary kicks in next season, meaning he and Draisaitl will eat up $21 million of the $75 million salary cap.

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Can Chiarelli afford a $6-million third-line centre? Perhaps, but that third-line centre had better get his faceoff production up from the 43 per cent that is Nugent-Hopkins’s lifetime number.

“Faceoffs have been the thing I’ve been the worst at throughout my career. I know that I need to get better, and I’ll keep working at it,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who has it up over 50 per cent early this season. “I wasn’t good enough last year. This year has been better — especially on special teams.”

He won two key offensive draws on an overtime power play in Chicago on Thursday, which resulted in Mark Letestu’s OT winner. If he could only win draws like a proper third-line centre, the rest of his game would elevate Nugent-Hopkins as one of the best 3Cs in the NHL.

“The biggest thing is mentally digging in every single faceoff. Expecting to win,” he said. “Against Chicago (where he won nine of 12 faceoffs) my timing was good. I don’t think I did anything different, but I felt better.”

In Philadelphia, where he won five of 17 it was the opposite effect.

“For me, it’s finding a way to get the mindset that I’m going to win every draw,” Nugent-Hopkins said.

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Becoming a reliable faceoff man would help the Oilers today. They’re a “right now” team that would hold on to Nugent-Hopkins right through the playoffs if Chiarelli deems that the best tact, despite his salary.

Salary cap reality may dictate a trade next summer. Or perhaps the Canadiens, who are said to fancy Nugent-Hopkins, make the plunge far sooner.

If you look Nugent-Hopkins up at HockeyReference.com, his “Similarity Scores (players with careers of similar quality and shape thru 2016-17) evokes names like Ulf Dahlen, Ryan Walter, Ken Linseman and Patrik Berglund.

Not Crosby, McDavid or Henrik Sedin.

He wears sweater No. 93, but between those two digits lies the number 6.

That number, inevitably, will dictate Nugent-Hopkins’s future in Edmonton more than any other.