NASHVILLE – Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is currently mired in a season-long slump. But don’t tell him it’s a sophomore slump, because the second-year player doesn’t believe in that term.
“If you let it get into your head, it can be [a sophomore slump], but I’ve been feeling good this year,” Nugent-Hopkins said recently. “The points haven’t been coming as easy as last year, but they’re never going to come easy. You have to work for them, and I’m definitely going to keep my head up.”
Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, hasn’t been producing at the same rate in 2012-13 as he did during last year’s rookie campaign. Through 24 games he has just 10 points, down from the 52 he gathered in 64 games in 2011-12. Only one of those 10 points is a goal. Before a two-assist night in Chicago on Sunday, Nugent-Hopkins had only tallied one point in his previous 10 games.
“It’s one of those things where if you get a couple bounces going your way, it should work out for you. You have to stick with it and not get frustrated,” he said. “If I let it be frustrating, it would be for sure.”
Nugent-Hopkins’ teammate, Taylor Hall, shared some of his experiences from his sophomore season. Hall struggled at the start of his second year, scoring three goals in the first 17 games. But he broke out of that slump and ended last season with 27 goals in 61 games.
“There’s always going to be times in your career where the puck isn’t going in and you just have to fight through that,” Hall said. “You have to realize that you’re going to play a lot of games in this league and you’ll get your goals eventually. That’s what I did. You just have to get pucks to the net and know that math is going to take over after a while, that pucks are going to go in and stay with the plan. If not you’ll drive yourself crazy.”
Hall praised the way Nugent-Hopkins has handled his second season, even though the points aren’t coming as easy as his rookie year.
“He’s not putting up the points he would want to – but as far as team-wise and playing good defense and being an overall two-way centreman, he’s been unreal for us,” Hall said.
Nugent-Hopkins said the positives he’s taking away from his second season are the strides he’s making in the defensive zone. Despite the slump in production, the British Columbia native has seen his ice time go up this season – a sign of the confidence the coaching staff has in him defensively.
Coming out of Red Deer in the WHL, Nugent-Hopkins has always been known for his offence. The defensive side of his game is something he’s worked on ever since breaking into the league four months after being drafted in June of 2011.
“I’ve improved my defensive game a lot since last year and I want to keep working on those things. I want to improve offensively, but everything starts with defence,” he said. “Last year coming in was a big adjustment for me. It’s such a different level from junior and you have to be so much more cautious and smarter in the defensive zone. I learned a lot last year and I want to keep learning and keep improving in that area.”
“I can just see him in five years being one of the best two-way centres in the league,” Hall said. “He’s so good in his own end for a guy of his stature. He wins so many battles and doesn’t give the opposition much in the offensive zone.”
Although his defensive game has been improved, Nugent-Hopkins is still being relied upon to produce regularly on the offensive end. The Oilers could use help in that area, as they are 25th in the NHL in goals per game (2.32). For a team that has drafted a forward at No. 1 overall in each of the last three summers, offence shouldn’t be a problem now or in the future.
Perhaps the Oilers can get a much-needed offensive boost in the season’s second half from their promising centre that has been snakebitten in his sophomore campaign.
“I have to make sure I stay positive and not let myself get down,” Nugent-Hopkins said.
“Once one or two go in, you feel like you had a good game and that it’s something you can build on and you get confidence and it takes off from there,” Hall said. “I think that’ll happen soon for him.”