Oilers hoping Nugent-Hopkins gamble pays off while window is open

Edmonton Oilers centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins celebrates after scoring. (Chris Carlson / AP)

EDMONTON — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins owns a horse named Infinite Patience, and just signed a contract that could make him a lifetime Edmonton Oiler.

It’s a good thing he wasn’t in on Seattle Slew.

“If we’d have lost Nuge, it would have been a massive loss,” Oilers general manager Ken Holland said Tuesday, after signing Nugent-Hopkins to an eight-year, $41 million deal. “His versatility — he can play centre, he can play left wing. His leadership in the locker room. He can kill penalties. He thinks at a high level…

“It’s not about sentimentality. It’s about trying to win,” he said. “We are a much better team with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the team.”

Nugent-Hopkins’ average annual value — the number that dictates how much of the Oilers’ cap he eats up — falls under this new deal from $6 million to $5.125 million. That’s a win for Holland, and everyone who believes the Oilers’ Stanley Cup window is open.

However, the 28-year-old Nugent-Hopkins will earn that money until he is 36 — the risk for Holland, but the reward for the player.

How much risk does that entail? Holland admits there is some, but had to be realistic.

“No contract is perfect. I’m sure Ryan would like to have a bigger cap number, and I’d like to have less term,” the GM said. “If Ryan goes to market on July 28, I have no doubt he (makes more money). He’s giving there. He wants to be an Oiler, he loves living here, and he wants to be an Oiler his entire career.”

And Nugent-Hopkins’ cerebral game makes him a good bet to still be a contributor in his mid-30s.

“He’s got great hockey sense. He’s really smart. He’s very poised with the puck — attributes to his game that, when he’s 60 years old and playing oldtimers hockey, he’s going to have hockey sense and hands,” Holland said. “He’ll be smart, poised. He won’t turn the puck over.”

Nugent-Hopkins’ career path has taken him from being a No. 1 overall draft pick, tagged as the first-line centre to build a Stanley Cup contender around, to a left-winger who can play centre in a pinch, kills penalties, and carries his share of the load on a power play that has led the NHL for two years running.

But the trump card for Holland is, Nugent-Hopkins wants to play in Edmonton. And there just aren’t a lot of players of his ability who will take less AAV to live and play in Northern Alberta.

“It’s been my home for the past 10 years … it’s been my goal the whole time to sign and stay,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who was born in Burnaby, B.C. and played his junior hockey in Red Deer, Alberta. “I want to be I Edmonton. I want to win in Edmonton. For me, it’s always been an honour to be a part of it here. It’s always been my goal to stay.

“It was about finding that happy medium for both sides. If that helps our team to find some pieces here and there, that’s great. I’m happy to stay an Oiler for my whole career.”

You’re going to let a guy walk who is thinking that way?

Not in Edmonton, you’re not.

Holland’s Oilers annually rank in the Top 5 of teams that appear on no-trade lists.

Sure, a Tyson Barrie will see the opportunity to run a power play with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and sign a one-year deal to pump up his value, but players like Alex Pietrangelo choose places like Vegas. Wishing Ryan Getzlaf would move his family off of Newport Beach and onto the Northern Alberta tundra is a fantasy. And most American players (Brandon Saad, Blake Coleman) want to remain in the United States — though they’ll make an exception for a Vancouver, Toronto, or even Calgary.

Seldom, if ever, Edmonton.

So, a general manager who would have needed to find two Top 6 left wingers had he let Nugent-Hopkins walk looked at his chances of making that happen, and went to Plan B: Give up term to keep the cap hit low.

Now, Holland needs to sign UFA defenceman Adam Larsson, find another Top 6 left winger, get a younger goalie to split time with Mike Smith, sign Smith, and possibly replace Oscar Klefbom.

Holland’s list is still long. Adding “replace Nugent-Hopkins” to it never made any sense.

“The next four or five years … this is the prime years of lots of players on this team,” Holland said. “I know Nuge, he knows us. He likes being an Oiler. I know what he can bring to the team. We found a solution that made him comfortable, and us comfortable.”

Infinite Patience, the horse, hasn’t won a race in two years.

The Oilers hope his owner pays better than that.

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