Oilers’ Nugent-Hopkins hit stride as a winger and leader in 2019-20

Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins joins Hockey Central to discuss what got over him during the intense Battle of Alberta tilt, that made him drop the gloves with another usually mild-mannered goal scorer in Sean Monahan.

EDMONTON — It was back in October, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — the longest-serving member of the Edmonton Oilers — was breaking in yet another head coach, while engaging a couple of reporters on an impromptu quiz surrounding his time as an Oiler.

“What’s Dave Tippett? Coach number… Eight? Nine?” we asked him.

Nugent-Hopkins looked skyward, opened up the ol’ memory bank, and began: “Tom Renney. Dallas Eakins. Todd Nelson… I still count MacT (Craig MacTavish.) He stepped in there. Todd McLellan, Hitch (Ken Hitchcock), Tipp…”

Questioner — “Did you miss one?”

RNH — “Ralph (Krueger). Maybe there is eight?”

Now he’s counting on his fingers.

RNH — “Tom, Ralph, Dallas. Then Dallas got fired and MacT stepped in. Then Todd Nelson. Then Todd McLellan replaced him. Then Hitch. Then Tipp. So it’s eight.”

Q — “And three general managers?”

RNH — “Well, if you count Keith (Gretzky) last year, then it’s four. Tambo (Steve Tambellini), MacT, Keith (Gretzky), Holl… No, this is five.”

Q — “Yes, Peter Chiarelli also. Now, what about captains?”

RNH — “Not so many captains. Three, I guess. Horc (Shawn Horcoff). (Andrew) Ference is the next one. Then Connor (McDavid). And Smytty (Ryan Smyth) for one game!”

Q — “Only three captains then.”

“I think so.”

Q “What about assistants?”

“Aw, that would be a tough one…”

Hey, you’d be confused too. When Nugent-Hopkins showed up here as an 18-year-old kid, fresh off being selected first overall in the 2011 draft, he was going to be Taylor Hall’s centreman into perpetuity.

If not, certainly Jordan Eberle’s.

Well, nine seasons and more than 500 games later, Nugent-Hopkins rode herd on Leon Draisatl’s left side for the majority of this season. Next season he’ll remain there — unless he gets moved up to play on Connor McDavid’s wing.

Either way, having been on pace for a career-high 70 points in his first full season as a winger, it doesn’t look like Nugent-Hopkins will play much centre as long as he remains an Oiler. Which will last through next season, when he becomes a UFA in the summer of 2021.

“I think it changes your game a little bit. I did have some experience in the past couple of years going on the wing so it kind of helped me adjust, but I think overall, it does open up a little more offensively for you,” he said in a conference call on Thursday.

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Nugent-Hopkins is smart and uber-skilled. He can be the shooter on any play — he was on his way to his fourth 24-goal season in nine years — and as a natural centreman he can distribute the puck. The same can be said for McDavid, and certainly for the 50-goal, 100-point man Draisaitl, making for a troika of Top 6 players who can trade pucks, and who are all entering their prime.

Defensively speaking, an NHL executive we know often asks, “Why would you even draft a winger?” His point being, draft only centremen, and then like a Team Canada, simply shift some to the wing — a far easier adjustment than trying to make a centreman out of a lifelong winger.

“When you’re centre, you’ve always got to make sure you’re coming back and playing deep in your own zone. You’re kind of catching up to the rush more so coming out of the defensive zone, transitioning to offence,” he explained. “Whereas a winger, you’re usually the one leading with the puck or at least supporting the guy who’s leading with the puck. So it’s kind of, as soon as we get it, we have that offensive mindset.

“I got to play with obviously Leo and Yamo (Kailer Yamamoto) and we got some chemistry going right away. It was definitely a lot of fun and I think it did kind of open up things more offensively for me,” Nugent-Hopkins said.

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It’s funny: Just as Nugent-Hopkins’ career finally intersects with a GM in Ken Holland who appears to have a viable plan to put the Oilers back on the map, Nugent-Hopkins looks in the mirror and sees a guy who turns 27 in 10 days, and is ready to help lead a team somewhere.

It’s a far better recipe than handing everything to a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds, the game plan they invoked here when Nugent-Hopkins walked in the door as a teenager.

“Having older guys coming in who can speak up in the room goes a long way,” he said of the veterans brought in this year, like Riley Sheahan, Mike Smith and Tyler Ennis. “And having fresh faces who have played on winning teams before (James Neal) changes the mentality too. For guys who’ve been here as long as I have, nice to have some positive energy coming in after some off years.”

And like him, others are starting to morph into leaders. For years they tried to import leadership here, like when Ference or Milan Lucic arrived. Now, leadership is coming from within from players like Nugent-Hopkins and Darnell Nurse.

“I’ve seen it, especially the last couple of years,” Nugent-Hopkins said, specifically referring to Nurse. “He has really stepped up as a voice in the room, as a guy we look to to get us going. He’s reliable in any situation on the ice (23:27 per night), and off the ice he’s been a leader for us. Definitely a player who younger guys can look to every day. Definitely a guy who, over the last couple of years, we’re hearing more from him.”

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Like ex-teammates Hall and Jordan Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins signed one of those $6 million AAV deals for their contract, for him a seven-year pact that expires after next season.

Having been here through so many lean years, and having finally found a place where his talents can help an actual contending team contend, surely he’ll find a way to stay around.

It would be a shame if this team finally won, and they were all gone.

I mean, who else could remember all those coaches?

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