Is The RNH Contract An Issue For The Oilers?
I love The Nuge. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, drafted first overall back in 2011, never became the elite Datsyuk-esque top line centre that he was originally compared to, yet he still has been one of the most reliable Oilers over his tenure. He is the only surviving player from the Decade of Darkness when players like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Linus Omark, and others were believed to be the core that would get this team to the post-season once more. If RNH plays this full season, he will jump to the 5th longest tenured Oiler in franchise history, leapfrogging Jari Kurri, Kelly Buchberger, and Shawn Horcoff. By the end of his career, Nugent-Hopkins could easily be the longest tenured Oiler of all time, passing Kevin Lowe (1037 games).
Well liked, reliable, defensively sound, these are all qualities to appreciate but are not necessarily what you expect to hear first when discussing a player who has signed an eight year deal worth 5.125 million a season. Is RNH worth his 5.125 million a year and what should we expect from the player moving forward?
To understand what Nuge brings to the team, let's take a look at his last three NHL seasons.
In 19/20, RNH put up 22 goals and 61 points in 65 games. 15 of these goals were at Even Strength. Playing at a near ppg pace is impressive but that was not how RNH started the season. From the beginning of the season to the end of December, Nuge had 7 goals and 20 points in 35 games. Of his 7 goals, only 3 of them were at even strength, the remainder being on the powerplay.
In the final 30 games of the season, Nuge had 15 goals and 41 points, a massive spike. 12 of his 15 goals were also at even strength, showing that Nugent-Hopkins wasn't just relying on a spike in powerplay production. This jump in production happened after former coach Dave Tippett put together the RNH-Draisaitl-Yamamoto line at the end of December. This trio played 27 games together, outscoring their opposition 28-8 at 5 on 5. They were not only the best line for the Oilers, but the most productive line in the NHL from January onwards.
The following year though, this line was not able to recapture that lightning in a bottle. Through 48 games and 103 minutes of 5 on 5 play, that line scored a paltry 4 goals, allowing 5 against. While Draisaitl continued to put up points at an elite pace, Nuge and Yamamoto both struggled mightily to find the back of the net. Nuge was still shooting at a solid 11.8SH% but his overall shot numbers had dropped from 172 in 65 games the prior season, to 135 in 52 games. The biggest concern with Nugent-Hopkins was his EV production; 7 goals and 8 assists. Nuge has never been a sniper but has always been a sublime playmaker. 8 assists at EV in 52 games was a new career low, worse than the 11 assists he had in his sophomore season in only 40 games. The only reason Nuge was above a 30 point player in 20/21 was a career high 9 PP goals.
This past season saw a bit of a resurgence from Nuge but still some concerning numbers moving forward. Going 11-39-50 in 63 games is decent production, especially considering how much Nuge rotated in the lineup, playing far more time as a third line winger/centre than top six time. Again though, he only scored 7 goals at EV, tying his production from the prior year, despite playing 11 more games. His EV assist production nearly doubled from 8 points to 15 however. Once more, his powerplay production made his overall totals look better, with a career high 22 assists.
What does this mean moving forward? The drop-off in EV production over the past two seasons is the biggest concern. Over the past two seasons combined, RNH ranks 5th in on ice 5 on 5 goals among Oilers forwards. It goes McDavid(137), Draisaitl(122), Puljujarvi(93), Yamamoto(86), and RNH(68). That is a steep dip. In his current role as a winger who will play either in the top six or on the third line, it is hard to see Nuge scoring more than 12-15 goals at even strength moving forward. While he has scored on 7 EV goals the past two seasons, last season he shot at 7%, well below his career average of 11.5%.
The one area Nuge has always been a huge boost is on special teams as he is featured heavily both on the top unit PP and on the PK as well. Last season, the Oilers finished 3rd on the PP at 26% but between February 26th and March 24th the team had a PP% of 19%, scoring on 9 of 47 opportunities. Those dates are when Nuge was out of the lineup with injury.
Edmonton also allowed the fourth most goals against on the PK in that period. On the season, the Oilers allowed the 13th most goals against. Nuge is the stir that mixes the drink for the Oilers on special teams and while 5 on 5 play is a crucial aspect of the game, special teams play is a critical area of importance as well.
With all of this said, is Nuge worth the 8 year, 5.125 million dollar contract? I certainly don't think it can be looked at as a bargain deal but I think there is a reasonable chance for it to work out well for all sides. Take Claude Giroux for example; now Giroux is a far more offensively gifted player but does play a similar game to RNH in being a strong playmaker and forward who excels on the PP. At 34 years of age, Giroux is still showing he is an effective top six winger. Like Nuge, Giroux isn't the most physical or fastest player on the ice so age hasn't diminished his most useful trait; his vision. At 34 or 35 years of age, RNH should still be able to bring his vision and on ice awareness to the lineup, be it in a top six role or top nine role.
My question at the top of the blog was whether or not the contract would be an issue for the team moving forward. I also do not see that as a concern. The Nuge contract will not effect the team negatively over the next couple seasons in terms of their current contracts as most of the core is locked up over the next three years. Around this time the cap is also expected to start jumping up again. Right now RNH is only getting 6.29% of the Oilers total cap which will only decrease as the cap grows.
As long as RNH can find a way to be around a 50-60 point player who is heavily featured on the powerplay, he can be a useful piece for this Oilers group. The biggest concern remains his EV production but some aspects of that (his shooting percentage from last season) suggest that even that may not be as bad as some may believe. I don't expect the player to start scoring 20+ goals at 5 on 5 but even returning to a 13-15 goal scorer at EV would be reasonable.
At the end of the day the X Factor in all of this is how much everyone likes Ryan. The fans, his teammates, the coaching staff, everyone. This is a great guy to have around and more importantly, is a guy who clearly wants to stay and retire as an Edmonton Oiler. This may be one of those contracts we are checking back on every year but at the end of the day it's hard not to root for and expect good things out of The Nuge.
Thanks for reading.