Monday, October 24, 2011

On Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at Home and Away

Through the first seven regular season games with the Edmonton Oilers, rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has impressed nearly everyone who has seen him play and currently leads all NHL rookies in scoring at 5-2-7 with a +2 rating.  With two games left to play before his entry level deal officially begins, there has certainly been a lot of positives to take from Nugent-Hopkins' game.  While largely considered a playmaker in junior, RNH has demonstrated early that he possesses a great finishing ability as well. With 5 goals already this year he currently sits in a tie for 4th in the NHL.  Ryan Nugent-Hopkins through seven games has an impressive shooting percentage of 29.4% on 17 shots on goal. To put that into perspective, the red hot Phil Kessel has connected on 33.3% of his 27 shots on goal. Of course it is unrealistic to expect those kinds of percentages to last the entire season, for both RNH and Kessel, but it gets the point across. Last season Corey Perry and Steven Stamkos finished the year at 17.2% and 16.5% respectively. Helping Ryan Nugent-Hopkins find this early success are his two wingers. With Taylor Hall on his left and Jordan Eberle to his right, the trio of youngsters have formed one of the league's most dynamic lines. Playing with those two certainly helps create time and space for RNH to do his damage. The top end skill and hockey sense from all three forwards combined creates a lot of chances for the Oilers in the offensive zone. When this trio hits the ice, opposing teams immediately start thinking about defense rather than generating offense, which is what every team hopes for from its first line. Another important factor contributing to the success of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are the favorable matchups that the coaching staff has sent him out against. This is no more evident than when you compare the numbers at home and on the road.

The Oilers have so far played 5 games at Rexall and 2 games as the visitor this young season. Although this isn't a large sample size to examine, the numbers for RNH in blue versus white are interesting. In 5 home games, Nugent-Hopkins is 5-2-7 with a +3 rating, while in his 2 road games, he's 0-0-0 with a -1 rating. Another interesting discrepancy is in his faceoff %. At Rexall he's 29.2%, which is not very impressive as it is, but on the road he's even worse at 15.4%, possibly due to the fact that he's required to put his stick down first. The coaching staff has already addressed this issue by having Shawn Horcoff take the draws on the powerplay and Horcoff or Belanger taking his defensive zone faceoffs, with the only drawback being the cost of his ice time. Clearly home ice advantage has played a big part in RNH's early offensive production this year. Having Tom Renney be able to pick and choose when to send out Kid Line 2.0 definitely puts Nugent-Hopkins in the position to succeed. However, If RNH is going to develop into a consistent NHL threat, he will need to learn how to produce on the road. Although with the great hockey sense he possesses, it should only be a matter of time before those numbers even out. Unfortunately for Oilers management, games 8 and 9 are both at Rexall Place and they will have to make a decision on the fate of RNH with only those two road games in mind.

Road woes or not, it's becoming more and more clear that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is ready for the show. He's creating chances more often than not, he's only been on the ice for one even strength goal against, and he's quaterbacking a much improved Oilers powerplay. More importantly RNH has shown that he can rise to the challenge and elevate his game when called out. Twice this season he's been benched by the coaching staff late in the third period of games, and twice he's bounced back the next game with a strong showing, scoring a hat trick in one and the game winner in the other. Consistency is something that all NHL rookies struggle with early, it took Taylor Hall nearly 25 games last season to find his, but the ability to recognize and learn from mistakes and improve upon them is important for a player trying to find that consistency. Tom Renney has always stated that the decision on RNH will be based on his entire body of work, and so far that body of work would suggest that he'll be in an Oilers uniform in Colorado on October 28th in game 10 of the regular season.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

On Game 1 of 9 for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins played in his first career regular season NHL game last night, and what a debut it was. The game against the Penguins was the season opener for the Edmonton Oilers, but also the first of a nine game tryout for the 2011 first overall pick. Playing on a line with 2010 first overall pick Taylor Hall and veteran playmaker Ales Hemsky on the top line certainly provided RNH with every opportunity to make an impact. He played just over 17 minutes, including 3:53 on the powerplay. While he scored the game tying goal late in the third period to help send the game to overtime, he did a lot of good things before that as well.

Nugent-Hopkins certainly did not look out of place skating on the top line and the first unit powerplay. He showed off his great vision and passing and set up Hall and Hemsky with a few good chances. Even 5-on-5 he was able to play his game and didn't look outmatched physically. The puck seemed to follow him around the ice all night. As for the special teams, having both Hemsky and Nugent-Hopkins playing together on the powerplay was successful in creating another point of attack. Teams in the past knew that the man advantage for the Oilers was run through Hemsky, allowing them to concentrate their efforts on him. But now having another solid puck mover on the half boards adds another threat to the powerplay. While, they didn't score with the man advantage last night, it certainly looked better than it did last year already. It's still early in the season but let's hope that it's a sign of things to come as the powerplay will need to be effective if the Oilers are going to end up on the right side of these 1-goal games more often than not this year.

Of course it wasn't all positives for Nugent-Hopkins last night. His numbers in the faceoff dot were terrible. He finished the night at a measly 13.3% on the draw. While 5-on-5 the Oilers can rely on Horcoff, Belanger, and Lander in the dot, on the powerplay, Nugent-Hopkins will need to improve or else the Oilers will be starting every man advantage by chasing the puck back into their own zone. However winning faceoffs is a skill that can be taught and improved, and luckily for Nugent-Hopkins he should have a few good teachers to learn from on this roster.

Overall it was an impressive debut for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and if he plays the next 8 games like he did against the Penguins, his spot on the roster should be a lock.

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