Moving Nugent-Hopkins to McDavid’s wing has been a huge success

Thomas Vanek's 11th career hat trick helped the Columbus Blue Jackets erase a 3-goal deficit and crush the Edmonton Oilers 7-3 Tuesday.

EDMONTON – Ryan Nugent Hopkins has watched Taylor Hall land in New Jersey and the Hart Trophy ballot, all in the same season. And he’s seen Jordan Eberle ride out of town on the salary dump wagon, only to end up on an Islanders club the Oilers just passed in the standings this week.

Meanwhile, the former first-overall pick just finished his own audition in Edmonton, and passed with flying colours.

Despite the stink of Tuesday night’s 7-3 drubbing from the Columbus Blue Jackets, the experiment of turning Nugent-Hopkins into Connor McDavid’s left winger has been a fabulous success.

Even better, it puts Leon Draisaitl exactly where the organization wants him — as the second-line centre — and resets the game plan here in Edmonton.

Maybe the Oilers don’t need to go out and find a winger for McDavid? Perhaps having those three centremen in the top six, with the flexibility to swap out Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl, or move Draisaitl up late in a game, is the best plan after all.

“I’m definitely happy. I want to stick around,” Nugent-Hopkins admitted Tuesday morning. “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.”

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In 10 games together, McDavid has 9-12-21 while Nugent-Hopkins has 5-7-12. The next thing that has to happen? Leon Draisaitl has to take the kind of ownership of the second line that his $8.5-million salary would request.

He can’t pout because he doesn’t get McDavid. He’s being paid to be the Evgeni Malkin to McDavid’s Sidney Crosby, and when Draisaitl gets there, Nugent-Hopkins might be right. Maybe then, things will start turning.

Finding the right player to put next to McDavid has proven more difficult than planned here. Milan Lucic was brought here to be that guy, and has failed miserably. Pat Maroon was good one year, not so good the next.

Draisaitl works well on his right side, but it kills the Oilers’ depth. So, for now, it’s RNH’s turn.

“[McDavid] has rotated through just about everybody, and in the three years … I’ve just always been the other centreman, I guess,” Nugent-Hopkins said.

It should be said, we’ve had to watch McDavid develop to realize just what he requires from a winger. Having reached the 40-goal plateau with a three-point night Tuesday, clearly McDavid isn’t just a passer anymore.

We asked Nugent-Hopkins: What kind of winger is perfect for No. 97?

“Depending on who he plays with, maybe it changes a bit?” offered Nugent-Hopkins. “If he plays with a really good shooter, he finds a way to get guys pucks in the right spot. When he plays with Leon, he finds the open areas [to shoot]. He’s an all-around player — if he needs to score or if he needs to pass. Doesn’t really matter.

“My game, I’m not just passer or a shooter either. Basically, whoever is in the spot, you find the other guy and try to put it in.”

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Nugent-Hopkins plays like McDavid, in that he is an elite disher of the puck, yet possesses a shot that can beat goalies. It’s only been 10 games but they look perfect together — especially with Ty Rattie filling the role of the inexpensive third member of the line who has the skills to finish a few plays himself (seven points in seven games).

“You could put my Dad on his line and [McDavid] would put up 100 points,” laughed Rattie, who can score, but has rattled around the minors in search of the perfect opportunity.

“I don’t know what all the qualities have to be, but whoever does get to play with him — and I’m lucky enough that it’s me right now — you’re in luck. And you’d better bring your ‘A’ game, ‘cause here are 100 million guys out there who want to be in your place.”

Few things have gone right in Edmonton this season, but sorting out the top six is a key development going into the summer. We all know, if GM Peter Chiarelli feels an expensive player — winger or defenceman — needs to be added, it would be Nugent-Hopkins’ $6-million salary going the other way.

They still need a few things here, to be sure, but three centremen of this pedigree in the top six is an elite place to start.

That means that the last of the Mohicans, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, might just be here for a while after all.


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