Edmonton Oilers: Should Fans Be Worried About Ryan Nugent-Hopkins?

Curtis LeBlancContributor IMarch 9, 2013

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 25:  Ray Emery #30 of the Chicago Blackhawks makes a save against Ryan Nugent-Hopkins #93 of the Edmonton Oilers at the United Center on February 25, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Oilers 3-2 in overtime.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jason Gregor of Oilers Nation conducted an interview with Steve Tambellini earlier in the week, and they briefly touched upon the disappointing season so far for the Edmonton Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Nugent-Hopkins is seventh in scoring for the Edmonton Oilers with eight points in 23 games.

He has struggled after going over a point per game in the AHL and lighting up the 2013 World Junior Championships with 15 points in just six games.

Despite underwhelming offensive numbers at the NHL level this season, Tambellini still raved in the interview about Nugent-Hopkins’ defensive game, which often draws comparisons to that of Detroit Red Wing Pavel Datsyuk.

Nugent-Hopkins’ minus-five rating is 18th on a team that has only two players with positive plus/minus ratings. That said, according to Behind the Net, he has faced the third-toughest relative quality of competition on the Oilers, behind only Mark Fistric (relied upon to kill penalties) and the currently injured Shawn Horcoff.

Furthermore, Nugent-Hopkins' Corsi relative (also available at Behind the Net) is a strong 20.5 at even strength, meaning that, in general, he’s creating more shots towards the opposition net than he’s allowing to be directed on his own at five-on-five.

The Edmonton Oilers have no clear-cut option at center on their first line. Sam Gagner has emerged as a consistent and reliable offensive player this season, but he’s also playing against easier competition. There is no doubt that Nugent-Hopkins has all the tools to be successful in that role at the NHL level, but as a 19-year-old who has yet to grow into his 6'1" frame, one can assume that he would be more successful playing sheltered minutes.

Unfortunately for the Oilers, captain Shawn Horcoff, who is normally called upon to take those tough assignments, is out for a while with a broken knuckle. Since the injury to Horcoff, Nugent-Hopkins has been drawing the other teams' top competitors.

The matchup game has been effective all season long for the opposition as Edmonton’s top centerman has been completely shut down offensively. He’s on pace for just 16 points in 47 games.

While the scoring totals are alarming, Oilers fans can take solace in the fact that Nugent-Hopkins is holding his own defensively against other top talents. Anyone who has been watching Oilers games this season knows that, on most nights, he’s creating chances. But with an abysmal 1.9 shooting percentage, the sophomore has struggled to find the twine.

Nugent-Hopkins’ problems are symptomatic of what ails the team as a whole. The Oilers are last place in the league in even-strength scoring. They have been held scoreless in their last two contests.

Playoff aspirations are fading fast, and the team will have to start scoring if they want to improve on last season’s position in the standings. Nugent-Hopkins is an elite passer and an underrated finisher, and if he can turn his offensive play around and start capitalizing on his chances, the Oilers' hopes of winning will greatly increase.

For the time being, Oilers fans can be happy that Nugent-Hopkins is doing well against high level competition, though struggling on the score sheet. He will be a player the Oilers can be comfortable counting on to play big minutes for many seasons to come as the rebuild—hopefully—draws nearer to a successful close.