Why Nugent-Hopkins is auditioning for both Oilers and Senators

Tomas Hertl played give-and-go with Logan Couture and scored the overtime winner for the San Jose Sharks against the Edmonton Oilers.

EDMONTON — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins may or may not know it. But with Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion taking in his second consecutive Edmonton Oilers game, he is auditioning.

For the Oilers first, and the Senators second.

As Dorion looked on, Nugent-Hopkins’ time on Connor McDavid’s left wing continued into a third game, and the pair delivered on a goal and a second straight night of copious scoring chances.

It’s hard to say that two similar players — one all-world speedster who can pass and score, and another distributor who does both at a lesser level, but has developed a stout defensive game — aren’t fitting nicely together in another garbage-time spring in Edmonton.

“They’re beginning to read and react off each other well. There is some chemistry developing,” head coach Todd McLellan said. “They both skate well and have good lungs, so they can get caught out there and still defend, which is good for us.”

Maybe, this is how it works in Edmonton, as the organization takes steps to right this listing ship over the summer. Perhaps this is the alignment that provides general manager Peter Chiarelli with his preferred setup: McDavid as the first-line centre, and Leon Draisaitl running a second unit.

Having Nugent-Hopkins makes for three centremen in the Top 6, which pleases the coach. Having that trio — plus the $6-million Milan Lucic — gives you four forwards earning $33 million beginning next season. That’s plenty.

And that’s what has Nugent-Hopkins auditioning for the Senators as well. Because, by the time this run on McDavid’s wing ends, if the coach and GM decide that Nugent-Hopkins is not the prototypical winger for this prodigal centreman, then they might decide that Mike Hoffman is.

Hoffman makes $5.2 million for the next two seasons. He’s roughly a 25-goal man who, we would guess, could do much better than that in a season spent on McDavid’s flank. Chiarelli has already mused about the problem of having $27 million wrapped up in three centremen.

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If Chiarelli makes a run at Hoffman, Nugent-Hopkins’ salary simply has to be in the deal, because Ottawa won’t relieve Edmonton of Lucic’s onerous contract — have no doubt about that.

But do you ever trade a well-rounded centreman like Nugent-Hopkins for a winger in Hoffman? That’s a tough deal to swallow for Edmonton — unless you get a little something more in the deal and Hoffman comes in and scores 35.

So really, the question becomes this: What kind of player does McDavid need on his wing, if it’s not going to be Draisaitl?

Can two similar players like McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins produce at the level required? Or does McDavid need a pure shooter like Hoffman to bury pucks, with a speedy puck retriever on the other wing?

“I don’t really think so,” Nugent-Hopkins said after a 4-3 overtime loss to San Jose. “Connor can put the puck in the net — he has over 30. When I get a chance I should be able to score, and Pontus (Aberg, on right wing) can fire the biscuit too. We have a good mix. Me and Connor, maybe we’re not just shooters, but we read each other well.”

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We asked the coach to describe his dream winger for McDavid. His reply?

“That’s a good question,” McLellan said.

“It depends on the night, on the opponent. It depends on the type of game,” he continued. “In a fast, free-flowing game you like to have the pace with him. You always want to have someone who can finish, because you never know when you’re going to get the puck from Connor.

“There are other nights, and I think of some of that playoff series last year against Anaheim, where you like to have that big, heavy deterrent with him. Yet, someone who can finish, like, Patty Maroon.

“I still like Leon up there on any given night because they connect so well… It varies. We’re still looking,” he said. “It’s still evolving.”

Up in the press box, Dorion looked down. Nugent-Hopkins had jump and was productive Wednesday, with a deft tip of an Oscar Klefbom point shot for a goal. Klefbom, too, was at his most offensive, scoring once and assisting on the Nugent-Hopkins goal.

The Senators are in need of a shakeup. So too are the Oilers.

There is a deal to be made here, but the question remains: Do you really want to make it?


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