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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