What does Nugent-Hopkins’ injury mean for Oilers’ trade deadline?

Edmonton Oilers centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, right, is checked by Chicago Blackhawks right wing Tommy Wingels during the third period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018, in Chicago. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Did Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ cracked ribs just put a fissure in Peter Chiarelli’s trade deadline?

Or does it simply push what would be a blockbuster deal back to a time more suited for trades of that magnitude, to the days preceding the June Entry Draft, where GMs most actively use the trade market to reshape their club?

Well, let’s grab a calendar.

When Oilers head coach Todd McLellan offered some refreshing honesty by labeling what had been called an upper body as cracked ribs, it came with a “five to six weeks” recovery timeline. That admission came on Jan. 19 — exactly five to six weeks before the Feb. 26 NHL trade deadline.

A team could, theoretically, trade for Nugent-Hopkins — who is in the midst of a career season — and count on the fact he could find his game again by, say, mid-March. Players who miss the first six weeks of the season often find themselves chasing the game all year long. But players who miss the month of February can, by April 7 be right back up to speed with six less weeks of wear and tear on their body.

“You can make an argument who our key go-to guy is this year,” McLellan said of his team’s leading goal scorer (16 goals). “I would throw Nuge right up there. He’s been trustworthy in every situation, he’s given us valuable minutes, he’s improved his game, which isn’t easy to do after you’ve been in the league for five or six years. He’s improved immensely.”

Nugent-Hopkins, a career 43% faceoff man, has his draws up to 49.2% this season, a considerable move towards acceptable for centreman who plays 17:39 per game. After an off year last season (43 points) he was on pace to get back to his usual 55 points in 2017-18 before the injury.

Like every one of the No. 1 overalls that is expected to be a franchise-changing player, Nugent-Hopkins was force fed too many games at too young an age. The bright side of that, however, is that the Oilers now have a 24-year-old player with 441 NHL games under his belt.

That means he’s got lots of experience, but he’s still just entering his prime years.

Which brings us to this salient point: Why WOULD you trade that player?

As Edmonton’s third-best centre — who is proficient enough to play as their second-line centre — retaining Nugent-Hopkins as a part of the Oilers’ core gives McLellan the option of playing Leon Draisaitl on a line with Connor McDavid. Being deep down the middle is crucial, so even though the Oilers could use some help on the wings, common wisdom dictates you don’t trade a centre for a winger.

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On a successful Oilers team — i.e. the one they hope to fix for next season — Nugent-Hopkins takes on the role of a defensive centreman who can still give you 50-plus points. Patrice Bergeron Light, if you will.

Now that he doesn’t get crushed in the faceoff circle, that role is absolutely attainable for Nugent-Hopkins.

“He’s a guy who is going to be really missed,” McDavid said. “He battles hard each and every night, a PK and power-play guy who is reliable all over the ice.”

Was Chiarelli cooking up a deadline deal that was scuttled by this injury? My guess is, no.

The upcoming cap crunch when McDavid’s $12.5 million kicks in next season can be dealt with. It might put pending UFA winger Patrick Maroon on the move, and threaten Mark Letestu’s ability to get raise in Edmonton.

But if the Oilers wish to keep Nugent-Hopkins they can afford to do so.

Unless a deal comes along for a true No. 1 defenceman (like Oliver Ekman-Larsson), there is no reason not to make Nugent-Hopkins part of the solution in Edmonton.

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