Oilers’ Nugent-Hopkins in elite centre territory

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (NHLI via Getty/Andy Devlin)

LEDUC, Alberta — It’s the middle of August, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins already knows what it’s going to be like for an Edmonton Oiler this coming season. At a media availability at an Oilers hockey school, almost every question asked of Nugent-Hopkins riffed off of the incoming star Connor McDavid.

“A big thing for me coming into the league was how much different it is on the defensive side of things compared to junior. If anything, I’m going to try to help him out with that side of things,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “He’s a pretty gifted offensive guy, so I don’t think he’ll have any problem with that.”

RNH was a No. 1 overall pick himself, back in 2011. “It seems like a long time ago, but these four years, they’ve gone by pretty fast. It’s hard to believe I’m going into my fifth year.”

You know what else is hard to believe? Only one forward in the NHL — John Tavares at 20:40 — played more minutes per night than Nugent-Hopkins’ 20:38 in the 2014-15 campaign. Here are a few other stats you likely were unaware of when it comes to the guy who is, for now, the Edmonton Oilers’ first-line centre and one the emerging stars in the game today:

• 22 of RNH’s 24 goals last season came at even strength. That’s more five-on-five goals than Patrick Kane (21), Jonathan Toews (20), Evgeni Malkin (19) and Sidney Crosby (18).

• 41 of his 56 points came at even strength, more than Anze Kopitar (40) and Patrice Bergeron (39), and just five behind Toews.

An organization that inexplicably tried to rebuild from the wings in — rather than from the goal line out, like most teams — Edmonton is suddenly flush down the middle. Nugent-Hopkins took a huge stride in his 21-year-old season, his second straight 56-point year. He was a different player though — far better defensively and sporting a lightning quick release that counted five more goals from the previous season.

“I think I was better at finding the balance between the offensive side and the defensive side (last season). If you worry too much about one or the other, it hurts the other one,” he said. “If you play more solid at both ends of the rink it creates more offence for everyone, and I started to find that last year.”

Nugent-Hopkins will be the No. 1 centre on Oct. 8 when the Oilers open their season in St. Louis, likely with Jordan Eberle on his right side. We’re betting McDavid will be No. 2 next to Taylor Hall, with an emerging Anton Lander at No. 3 centre and newly acquired Mark Letestu at No. 4. Big Leon Draisaitl may be playing the wing or centre — in either Edmonton or Bakersfield of the AHL. Who knows?

If McDavid turns into The Next One and either the 24-year-old Lander or 19-year-old Draisaitl lays claim to the trusty third-line centreman’s role, Edmonton will have a formidable group down the middle for years to come.

“The big thing is to take some pressure off each other, and make other teams have to match up against two, three really good lines,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who will take a role is expediting McDavid’s learning curve at the big league level. “The thing he does really well already is, he does everything at top speed. One of the biggest adjustments coming into this league is just how little time you have with the puck. You’ve got to do everything at top speed. He already does that so well.”

An issue in Edmonton is faceoffs. The Oilers finished 25th in the league winning 48.2 percent of their draws. Last season Nugent-Hopkins upped his percentage to 45.7% from 42.4 the year before, but that’s still not nearly good enough.

He is a microcosm of what has plagues Edmonton: Nugent-Hopkins is still just 22, only nearing the point in an NHL career where a player can be expected to win more than half of his faceoffs.

He met the media Thursday at 195 pounds however, a far cry from the 175 pounds Nugent-Hopkins weighed when he was hurried into the lineup like all the other No. 1 picks here. They’ll rush along another one this fall, but this time there isn’t a soul in the hockey world who will second guess that decision.

It has all created a level of hype around this Oilers team that is palpable, even out to the coast where Nugent-Hopkins spends his off-seasons.

“Being in Vancouver, meeting fans from the (Oilers), everyone is really excited about it. There’s a new life it seems right now. We’re all just waiting for the season to start.”

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