When you have one of the two best players in the world, it shouldn’t be the hardest task for a GM to find a linemate skilled enough to play alongside them.
Despite the Edmonton Oilers suffering through a miserable season few saw coming, Connor McDavid won his second consecutive Art Ross Trophy with 108 points, which was good enough for some to consider him for the Hart Trophy even though his team missed the playoffs by 17 points.
But through most of the season, Edmonton was either experimenting combinations to find a permanent wingman for McDavid, or went the easy route and put centre Leon Draisaitl there. There’s no question Draisaitl and McDavid have chemistry, but when it comes to the long-term success of the Oilers it seems imperative that those two occupy the top two centre roles at even strength.
Pontus Aberg was acquired and immediately placed with McDavid. Milan Lucic got a look, but is far too slow to keep up with the game’s fastest skater and Jesse Puljujarvi was given a brief opportunity. You name the winger and he’s probably seen some ice time with McDavid.
None of them stuck, but when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was given a shot to move from the third-line pivot spot to McDavid’s left wing, there was instant chemistry. The two were together for the last 13 games of the NHL’s regular season and Nugent-Hopkins recorded 15 points. He was held off the score sheet just four times.
The duo have continued with their chemistry at the World Championship in Denmark, where Canada is off to the semifinal after a 5-4 overtime win against the Russians on Thursday. Canada’s head coach is Bill Peters, who was recently hired by the Calgary Flames to replace Glen Gulutzan, and although these two players could be giving him headaches through next winter, Peters immediately recognized how well they work together, and it was just a matter of finding a third player to keep with them.
“The chemistry there is something we like,” Peters said. “If we need to make a change it will be on the right side of that line. I anticipate those two staying together.”
Like McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins is a first-overall pick of Edmonton’s intended to play a top-line centre role. But through weak drafting in rounds 2 to 7, Edmonton’s depth of young and emerging talent at other positions just isn’t there. And by trading out Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle the past two years, two offence-minded wingers any team would welcome in their top six, the Oilers don’t have a natural winger to put on McDavid’s flank.
Ryan Strome was supposed to be Eberle’s replacement in the forward unit, with the bonus of being able to play either centre or wing, but after a meagre 34-point season it’s clear the soon-to-be 25-year-old is still more project than top-liner. For now, Nugent-Hopkins is the only player outside of Draisaitl who has been able to think and skate at a high enough level to complement McDavid.
There is some question if Nugent-Hopkins will even be back in an Edmonton uniform next season, or if GM Peter Chiarelli will again take a cut at a blockbuster deal and trade the $6 million natural centre for a winger. But the way the two have continued to click on Canada’s top line sends a clear signal that Edmonton already has someone who can play with No. 97.
“They think the game at a high level and read off each other real well,” Peters said.
Not every game has challenged the duo with the stiffest competition of course, but through eight games the two Oilers are Canada’s highest-scoring players. McDavid is third in tournament scoring with 16 points in eight games, while Nugent-Hopkins has eight points and a total of 33 shots that ranks second in the tournament behind Patrick Kane.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) May 17, 2018
Towards the end of the regular season, Sportsnet’s Mark Spector wrote how well Nugent-Hopkins was filling an important role on McDavid’s left side and, for RNH’s part, he alluded to the trade rumours and reinforced his desire to stay in Edmonton when the sustained breakthrough happened.
“I’m definitely happy. I want to stick around,” Nugent-Hopkins told Spector. “If there are tough decisions to make, I want to make them even tougher. Seven years [in Edmonton] now. I want to keep playing here.
“I know that things are turning, that it’s going to happen … and I want to be part of that group that does make it happen. When it does, it’s going to be so rewarding.”
There is a lot for Edmonton’s front office to consider this summer as it tries to figure out what went wrong in 2017-18 and how to get back to the level they were at in 2016-17 when they reached the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A goalie to push Cam Talbot is one area of need, the defence could also use another body or two, and the forward unit needs to get quicker overall.
But it’s becoming clear that the search for a highly capable winger to play with McDavid is over. Rather than follow a similar path of the past two summers and go the trade route to get that player, risking another regrettable whiff, perhaps the patient Winnipeg Jets model is a better pursuit. The Oilers’ answer is already in-house.
McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins are a great fit together. The rest of the league will always have its hands full with just McDavid, but pairing him with another first overall pick for a full 82 games could take Edmonton’s top line (and perhaps McDavid’s production) to another level.
“For the rest of the hockey world they get to enjoy it. For us as the Calgary Flames, we gotta find a way to defend it,” Peters said.