Remember that age-old adage “It’s not you, it’s me?”
In the relationship between the Edmonton Oilers and forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the saying may actually be “it’s not me, it’s you.”
This should have been Nugent-Hopkins’ year to shine. For the first time in his entire career with the Edmonton Oilers, it’s looking like the 2011 first overall pick is going to be getting a taste of the playoffs.
Since he hasn’t seen postseason action in six years, dating back to his 2011 playoff run with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels, that’s a huge deal. The Burnaby, British Columbia-born center should be relishing the opportunity; there should be a bit more skip in his stride as he looks to provide veteran presence for the Pacific Division club in a strong season.
Instead, things aren’t going quite as planned.
Through 71 regular season NHL games played for Edmonton this year, Nugent-Hopkins has put up just 15 goals and 34 points. That’s just three more goals than last season and as many points. Only last year, his 34 points in 2015-16 came in 55 games, a full 16 fewer than he’s played so far this year.
Things have been inconsistent, too.
After a slow start to the season, Nugent-Hopkins started to put up numbers. He went from going goalless in October to putting up three goals in November and four goals in each of December and January. Now, he’s back to struggling offensively. He has two goals in each of February and March, and just eight of his points this year have come in those two months.
At that pace, he could finish the year well below 40 points, and in a full season, nonetheless.
That’s a big step back for a player who had back-to-back 56 point seasons. His numbers should be climbing on a better team, not taking a dip. For the Oilers, that should be a concern.
However, this break up seen brewing on the horizon probably isn’t going to come via the expansion draft. Andrej Sekera and Milan Lucic need to be protected; they both have no-movement clauses and therefore are golden when it comes to risk of exposure.
Assuming the Oilers don’t need to keep Mark Fayne next year (and with just four NHL games this season, that’s a safe assumption), they’ll only need to protect two other defensemen.
Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson are the obvious choices, though a Kris Russell re-signing could throw a wrench in the deal. But protecting only three defenders gives the Oilers the option to protect seven forwards.
After Lucic, there are so few expansion-eligible forwards on Edmonton’s roster that they may actually have to sign someone in order to meet the exposure requirements. They’ll protect Jordan Eberle, who is third in scoring on the team, behind only Connor McDavid (exempt) and Leon Draisaitl, who needs to be protected as well.
Patrick Maroon has been both effective and cheap. Even if they protect both Nugent-Hopkins (they should) and Mark Letestu (maybe they shouldn’t), that’s only six names. And if they add Benoit Pouliot, then the team hasn’t hit exposure requirements. They may have to protect Zack Kassian and then sign one final deal, exposing one of Letestu or Pouliot.
While Nugent-Hopkins by no means should be exposed, though, it’s about time the team took a long, hard look at exactly what he still brings to the table.
If this was a bad year, they’ll kick themselves if they sell low and let him go now.
This was the year to show everything he had, though. This was the year to be the team’s most exciting player not named Connor McDavid.
This was the year to remind the team that he was one of just two first-overall picks left on the roster.
He didn’t do that.
Taylor Hall, the top selection from 2010, has been moved to the New Jersey Devils to shore up the team’s blue line. Nail Yakupov was moved to the St. Louis Blues after disappointing play; he’s been fading out ever since. That leaves Nugent-Hopkins, the last of a slew of picks that should have saved Edmonton.
But instead of celebrating another anniversary, it looks like the Oilers and Nugent-Hopkins will be having a “conscious uncoupling” sometime soon.