Why Oilers can’t afford to lose ‘winger to the stars’ Nugent-Hopkins

Edmonton Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) and Connor McDavid (97) celebrate a goal during first period NHL Stanley Cup qualifying round action against the Chicago Blackhawks. (Codie McLachlan/CP)

EDMONTON — He arrived a decade ago as “Hoppy,” a nickname bestowed upon Ryan Nugent-Hopkins by his junior teammates in Red Deer.

Skinny, pink-cheeked and about 170 lbs. worth of teenager, he was the Edmonton Oilers’ second consecutive No. 1 overall pick. The centreman who, together with a 19-year-old Taylor Hall, would undoubtedly hang a few more Stanley Cup banners in the rafters here in Edmonton.

Ten seasons and one playoff appearance later, “Hoppy” became “Nuge,” which lately morphed into “Nuggy” (rhymes with buggy), thanks to teammate Leon Draisaitl.

“Nuggy is our quiet leader,” Draisaitl declared. “He’s not the loudest guy, maybe not the most vocal, but he just does everything right.”

Stream every Edmonton Oilers game this season with Sportsnet NOW. Plus, SN NOW+ subscriptions now include access to NHL LIVE!

Through it all, ol’ Nuggy moved over to left wing, and now at age 27 is a pending unrestricted free agent. My, how our boy has grown.

“In a lot of ways it’s flown by,” he said. “It’s crazy to think this is my 10th year now.”

The term “Swiss Army Knife” doesn’t really do Nugent-Hopkins justice. He’s high-end talent, but not too proud to do whatever job needs doing in Edmonton — which means GM Ken Holland would very likely need to acquire two players to fill Nugent-Hopkins’ shoes if he lets him walk.

A No. 1 pick is supposed to be the best forward on his team, but on a roster that includes Connor McDavid and Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins has nestled into his role as perhaps their most versatile forward, alongside Draisaitl. He is the winger to the stars, most often with McDavid, a smooth and subtle killer of penalties, and an integral component on a power play that has again cracked the NHL’s Top 10 is trending north in the North.

If you’d have told 18-year-old Ryan Nugent-Hopkins that this is what he would be a decade into his career, would he have believed you?

“Good question,” he mused. “I’m not the same player I was back then, but you’ve got to evolve your game. Find a way to be an effective player in this league. My evolution through the years has brought me to this point, where this is the game that can have the biggest positive impact for my team.

“I was just a young kid. A lot skinnier,” he said, looking back to draft day 2011. “Through the years I’ve learned a lot about how to be a pro, but back then? You just have to find your way in the league.”

So, who is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and what would the Edmonton Oilers be losing if they do not find a way to re-sign the player as his seven-year, $42 million dollar deal — just his second NHL contract — expires?

Well, as it turns out, he is a lot of things.

Head coach Dave Tippett: “He’s got strong hockey I.Q., good skill, but he uses it on both sides of the puck. Not just the offensive side. That makes him a player who guys want to play with. And as a coach, when you look down the bench for someone who can get a job done — whether it’s offensively or defensively — and he’s the guy you can put in both of those positions. Just a good player.”

Defenceman Darnell Nurse: “He’s one of the best two-way players in the league, one of those guys who is always going to make the right play. If there’s a breakdown, you can always count on him to be in position to help you out.

“As a leader, he’s not the loudest guy. But he sets such a good example each and every day for the guys on this team.”

And Draisaitl: “He competes like crazy (and) does so many little things right on the ice, off the ice…. He’s just a very calming presence. Never gets too high or too low — just a great professional.

“Power play, penalty kill… He just does it all for us.”

OK, then. He’s a good player and everyone wants him back — fans, players, the coach, and we’ll bet the GM as well.

So what’s he worth and for how many years?

The answer, in this ever-shifting hockey economy, is complex. His current average annual value is $6 million — but now a winger, which is worth less than a centre. Our guess is, $7 million would be about as high as Holland needs to go, a number that will fluctuate with contract length.

It’s term that complicates these deals, especially when the player is signing a deal at age 28. Settled into a lovely home in Edmonton’s west end, married for coming on two years and seemingly willing to finish a career and raise a family in Edmonton, Nugent-Hopkins is that rare high-end NHL player who wants to be in Edmonton. That’s got to be worth something.

Holland can sign him for eight years if he chooses to, but in an economy that saw Taylor Hall and Mike Hoffman settle for one-year deals – even Tyler Toffoli took four years and $17 million from Montreal — negotiations will likely centre around the final few years of the deal. The seasons when Nugent-Hopkins is 34, 35, 36 years of age.

As for timing, experience tells us that the Apr. 12 trade deadline tends to be a catalyst, but likely only if the Oilers are out of the playoff race and forced to choose between signing their asset or moving him at the deadline. We don’t see a lot of acrimony between a very chilled personality in Nugent-Hopkins, and a team that could say, “Let’s push this back while we make a playoff run.”

The two sides spoke before the season, but have ceased negotiations since. We suspect they’ll throw a log on the fire in mid-March, as the team’s playoff position gets solidified or not.

“Personally I’ve kind of put it aside. I just want to focus on playing,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “We’re rolling along here and it’s a lot of fun. There is going to be some questions, and people bringing it up. But my main focus here is hockey.

“Hopefully everything works out.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.