The Edmonton Oilers’ 2015-16 season will mark the franchise-altering arrival of Connor McDavid – the club’s first-overall selection of this season’s NHL draft.
McDavid has been billed as the Oilers’ savior, the new face of the NHL and perhaps even the best player to enter the league since Wayne Gretzky did so for Edmonton more than three decades ago. Those will certainly be lofty shoes to fill, but regardless of what actually happens, it’s clear the Oilers are getting a phenomenal addition at the center position.
The arrival of McDavid presents an interesting situation for another talented young Oilers pivot – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
While Nugent-Hopkins (the team’s first-overall pick from 2011) has reigned as Edmonton’s number-one centerman, he’ll now project to move no higher than the second line should he wish to stay at the center position, as McDavid is undoubtedly the Oilers’ first-line middle-man for the foreseeable future.
Nugent-Hopkins won’t lose his role on the top line immediately. He’ll line up there again next season, and perhaps even the season after that, as McDavid is eased into the grind of the NHL. However, as soon as McDavid is ready to take on a bigger role, that first-line center slot will be his for the taking.
It might seem like an unfavorable shift in power in Nugent-Hopkins’ eyes, but in the long run, McDavid’s presence will be a significant benefit for the Oilers’ No. 2 man.
The key factor at work here is the quality of competition Nugent-Hopkins will be lining up against each shift. As the Oilers’ top option at center, Nugent-Hopkins is faced with the opposition’s best defensive pairing night in and night out. While teams may vary in how they deal with the second, third and fourth lines, there’s no question when it comes to handling top-line offensive options.
You throw your best at them, as often as you can.
A quick look at the numbers confirms this. For example, Nugent-Hopkins lined up against the cross-province rival Calgary Flames four times in 2014-15. In those four contests, the majority of his ice time came against the Flames’ top pairing of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie – and it wasn’t even close.
Nugent-Hopkins saw the Giordano-Brodie pairing for 57.89% of his ice-time in the first of those games, 76.67% in the second, 67.86% in the third, and 71.91% in the fourth (per LeftWingLock.com).
Thus, once McDavid has matured enough to take the first-line reins, Nugent-Hopkins will reap the rewards of that defensive focus shifting from him to his new teammate. Instead of seeing every team’s best each time he steps on the ice, Nugent-Hopkins will often see second or third pairings, only rarely coming up against those top-pairing stars. It isn’t simply the fact that he’ll be one spot lower on the depth chart that will prompt this, but rather, the fact that the centerman above him on said chart is dangerous enough that teams will be aiming the full weight of their defensive attention in his direction.
In doing so, the opposition will think of shutting down Nugent-Hopkins only as a second thought – and it’s here that he’ll be able to find opportunity. The young center clearly isn’t the type of player you want to sleep on.
While he hasn’t quite lit it up at the NHL level just yet, Nugent-Hopkins has been a fantastic offensive piece for the Oilers. The 2014-15 season served as a solid step forward for him as well, as he tallied 24 goals (a career high) and 56 points in 76 games. They were solid numbers, but there’s still much more to give when it comes to Nugent-Hopkins, especially when you consider the astounding numbers from his youth. The British Columbia native racked up 106 points in only 69 games for the Red Deer Rebels during his last season of juniors. Before that, at age 15, Nugent-Hopkins scored an unbelievable 119 goals and 214 total points in only 66 games for his local B.C. squad.
Despite his pre-NHL success and the progress he’s made since joining the league, Nugent-Hopkins hasn’t exactly hit it out of the park as Edmonton’s number-one pivot yet, topping out at 56 points last season – the lowest mark compared to number-one centres from all other Pacific Division teams, minus Arizona.
He’s been a solid contributor, but there seems to be another gear Nugent-Hopkins has yet to hit – a new level that sees him break the 60-point plateau and continue moving even higher. At only 22, there’s plenty of time to reach those goals, and the boost he’ll get once McDavid becomes the Oilers’ offensive focal point will help this quite a bit.
The move will be quite apt considering, at the moment, Nugent-Hopkins is performing at a level more akin to a second-liner anyways, despite his notable ice-time:
Though he may have been privy to first-line ice-time over the last three seasons, his production over that span has thus far only scratched the surface of a second-liner, and his effect on his linemates has similarly been below the first-line level, according to the above chart.
Moving to the second line, with McDavid on the first, should allow Nugent-Hopkins to maximize his ice-time much more effectively in terms of both individual production and his impact on line mates.
To see just how much this type of situation can affect offensive success, one need only look to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin can certainly relate to the situation Nugent-Hopkins will soon find himself in as he’s yet another elite centerman who would be a first-liner on any other team, but who suits up on the second because the club boasts a generational talent ahead of him on the depth chart.
While Crosby has been the Penguins’ leading man for the entirety of Malkin’s career (when the two are in the lineup at the same time), the Penguins have found a nice balance between the two pivots, ensuring they both get adequate time to go to work. However, opposing offenses are still sure to throw their best at Crosby while rolling the dice on their lesser-skilled blue-liners taking on Malkin’s line.
The Russian star hasn’t seemed too upset with the arrangement, especially since he’s been able to capitalize on it to such a dominant degree that he’s thus far earned two Art Ross trophies as the NHL’s top scorer. That isn’t to say that Malkin has succeeded only because Crosby draws the most skilled defenseman on opposing clubs, but rather, that the arrangement allows Malkin to use his already dangerous skill-set in a much more advantageous way.
Nugent-Hopkins will soon be faced with a similar advantage, and while he may not run the club’s top line anymore, he will be granted the satisfaction of leaving opposing coaches flummoxed when they’re forced to match up their second or third defensive pairing with a guy who can do this: