“I always liked [Nugent-Hopkins], and coaching against him you could tell he was a really smart player,” Oilers head coach Dave Tippett, who went up against Nugent-Hopkins and the Oilers often during his time coaching the Arizona Coyotes, said Monday during an interview on Hockey Central. “My first experience with him was at the World Cup [in 2016] on the Under-23 team that I was coaching. I knew he was a good player, but I was running the penalty kill on that team and he was one of the guys we were using and you’d find how really smart he is.”
This year, Tippett and general manager Ken Holland learned just how versatile he is, too. Faced with the task of splitting up the dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Draisaitl, Tippett shifted his third centreman, who he called “a great complement player,” over to the wing where he has excelled beside Draisaitl and opposite Yamamoto.
“When I first took the job in Edmonton, Ken Holland and I talked a lot about trying to split up the big two there — but then where does Nuge fit?” explained Tippett of the decision. “You know, you’re trying different things. Nuge was battling a wrist injury most of the year, too, early in the year, that he was struggling with. So he was struggling on some face-offs. It got to the point where we just said, we’re gonna split the two big guys up and we put Nuge and Yamamoto and Draisaitl together and boy, they took off.”
Through 65 games at the time of the NHL’s hiatus, Nugent-Hopkins had tallied 22 goals and 61 points, putting him on pace for the most productive season of his career. His linemates have also been lights out — Draisaitl leads the league in points with 110 and Yamamoto has proven he belong with the big club as he’s scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace through 27 games.
“The thing about Nuge, it’s just he’s so smart. He’s got great skill, great anticipation, reads off people,” said Tippett. “Draisaitl and Yamamoto, they can drive a line, but Nuge was really the glue in there that really kept things together. I’ve got a real renewed respect for him because you watch him from afar and you like him but when a coach watches as much video as we do and see what he does game-in, game-out, you get a real respect for him. He’s a really good player. And a good person.”