Oilers need to reunite Nugent-Hopkins and McDavid for the top line

If the Edmonton Oilers realize how serious Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ injury is, and he returns to the lineup, then a lineup shift should be possible. This means moving him back to Connor McDavid‘s wing on the first line and sparking his offence at 5-on-5 and in the goal department.

McDavid Can Spark Nugent-Hopkins’ Goal-Scoring

We saw the most productive season of Nugent-Hopkins’ careerMcDavid was his left wing partner for the 2017-18 season. He then moved to the left wing to start the 2018-19 season. Yes, McDavid was injured and the new line of NugentHopkins, Leon Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto was established. But before that, it seemed like everything just clicked between McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins.

While playing on Draisaitl’s second line with Yamamoto and Yamamoto, only three goals were scored in the entire year. I wouldn’t expect his goals to suddenly jump up either, as Draisaitl is the goal-scorer on the line and feeding the puck to him has seemed to be the main objective.

McDavid’s five consecutive seasons have included at least 63 assists. This is even with shorter seasons. In 2018-19, Nugent-Hopkins played on McDavid’s wing. This was his most productive year with assists (75), and points (116). It was also the season Nugent–Hopkins scored his most goals (28), most assists (41) as well as the most points (69). 20 of his 28 goals and 43 of those 69 points came at 5-on-5, which is sorely what the Oilers need (from “Edmonton Oilers not getting enough even-strength contributions”, Edmonton Sun, Dec. 6, 2021).

Ryan Nugent–Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images).

When these two had career years together, they didn’t have a linemate even close to the skill that Jesse Puljujarvi has on their right side. In fact, it was Ty Rattie who lined up beside them, a player that doesn’t even find himself in the NHL now.

Nugent-Hopkins’ shooting percentage is bound to go up, and who better to help him elevate it than the best player in the world who creates space and threads passes perfectly on the tape of his teammates. Nugent-Hopkins took 71 shots this season and scored just three goals, giving him a shooting percentage 4.2. His career shooting percentage is 11.6, and in the two seasons where he spent time on McDavid’s wing, he had the highest shooting percentage of his career at 15.9 and 13.5 percent. Nugent-Hopkins took 208 shots in 2018-19, the most in any season of his career.

Related: Oilers continue to benefit from the Nugent-Hopkins Contract

All signs point towards reuniting these players to get McDavid moving again and Nugent-Hopkins in the goal column. While the rest of the puzzle will need to be solved and hopefully falls into place sooner than expected, it is worth watching to see how McDavid connects with McDavid to produce the kind of production that McDavid produces. Nugent-Hopkins has scored 188 career goals. He is a more playmaker than a player, but he still has the puck shot and hockey intelligence to know exactly where he needs to be in order to produce offensively.

Oilers have Options to Shuffle Middle-6 Forwards

Since Nugent-Hopkins has been out of the lineup, we’ve got to see a couple of different combinations, mostly at left wing on the second line to analyze how possible replacements can perform. First, it was Devin Shore, but after Warren Foegele stepped in, there’s no denying that he should get a longer look in the top-6 with how he’s played.

Zach Hyman, provided everyone is healthy, can move up to the third team and bring his energy, compete level and skill with him and a couple of younger players. He’s versatile enough to play up and down the lineup and add to the chemistry that Ryan McLeod and Tyler Benson have shown when together. There is a need to make things more interesting and move the lines around.

Zack Kassian should still be available for Toronto’s next game. He was with the team on their trip and will exit COVID Protocol. If he is able to elevate his play, that makes them an even more solid option at the bottom.

Oilers’ Second Line Can Produce Without Nugent-Hopkins

Yamamoto has seen a significant increase in production, even though he continues to play on the second-line. Yamamoto has become more visible, more confident with the puck and more skilled at shooting, which has resulted in some goals. As long as there are pucks in the net, NHL goals can come from anywhere. Yamamoto changed the script after seven consecutive games without scoring. He now fires the puck and is in a better position to score.

Kailer Yamamoto Oilers
Kailer Yamamoto, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin/ The Hockey Writers

Dave Tippett had to test out other wingers for the left side of his second line, with Nugent-Hopkins absent. After he flew home to Edmonton to get evaluated, the Oilers should have at least one more game to see who can be a possible fixture on that line, not only in Nugent-Hopkins’ absence but also if the lines shuffle with the lack of team production.

The Oilers must look at the bigger picture, despite Draisaitl’s and Yamamoto’s combined goal since Nugent-Hopkins was out of the lineup. They also have a combined total of four goals and 13 points over the three previous games. This would allow more than one line to be at the same strength. As I said, this could result in three lines contributing offensively. The fourth line, however, looked great and played hard against the New York Rangers.

The line of Nugent-Hopkins, Draisaitl, and Yamamoto hasn’t worked as efficiently as it did in 2019-20, so Tippett can’t keep counting on the hope that it will return to that. Todd McLellan was last to coach McDavid with Nugent-Hopkins, but the Oilers have better players than that to make it happen again.

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