Ryan Nugent-Hopkins enters his fourth NHL season needing to prove he’s more than a 20-goal, 50-point guy and whether he does will depend on whether Leon Draisaitl (pictured) can contribute as a second-line center. That’s asking an awful lot.
The Edmonton Oilers enter this season with five centers who have combined for 814 career NHL games and a stats line that reads 95-203-298. For those of you keeping score at home, there are 13 centers in the league who have played more career games all by themselves. A total of 57 have more career goals, 37 have more assists and 43 have accumulated more points.
Here’s how bad it is. Manny Malhotra, who has spent his career as a checking center and missed almost a full season with an eye injury, is 20 career goals ahead of Edmonton’s centers and trails them in points by just seven.
Shortly after training camp opened, Oilers coach Dallas Eakins acknowledged he had only two NHL centers in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Boyd Gordon, “and then there’s a whole bunch of mud after that.” Third overall pick Leon Draisaitl cleared that muddy situation up a little and will start and probably finish the season in the NHL, but considering his competition was Mark Arcobello, Anton Lander and Will Acton, he basically got the second-line job by default. It’s not that Draisaitl wasn’t good in the pre-season, but is that how you really want your prized prospect to start his career, by basically being given a roster spot because nobody else really pushed him?
Edmonton’s center ice corps to start the season will be Nugent-Hopkins, Draisaitl, Arcobello and Gordon – with Acton being the extra forward. In the Pacific Division. You know, that one that has a pair of Joes in San Jose (Thornton and Pavelski), a pair of Ryans in Anaheim (Getzlaf and Kesler), and a pair of studs (Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter) in Los Angeles. We keep waiting for the Oilers and their young players to get better and they vow they will be, but how can the Oilers possibly expect to make any ground in the Western Conference with a center ice corps that weak?
Good luck with that. If the Oilers are going to make any gains this season, two things are going to have to happen, two things that are far from certainties. First, Nugent-Hopkins is going to have to emerge in his fourth season as more than a 20-goal, 50-point guy and find a way to fight through playing head-to-head against bigger, stronger, more experienced players. Second, Draisaitl is going to have to take some of the heat off Nugent-Hopkins and prove that as a rookie, he can be a capable second-line center.
Does that put an inordinate amount of responsibility on two players who might not be able to handle it? Undoubtedly it does. But until the Oilers can attract players to their system who are in their mid- to late-20s and can show the way for these guys, they’re going to have to continue to wait for those players to develop into those guys themselves. The only problem with that, of course, is how do you show the way if all you’ve done throughout your career is lose games and fail to make the playoffs?
Draisaitl is going to be key in all of this. If the heaviest of the Oilers forwards can adjust to the learning curve and make a tangible contribution to the offense, that might take some of the heat off Nugent-Hopkins. But that’s asking an awful lot of an 18-year-old who isn’t particularly physical. In fact, none of the Oilers centers is much of a physical presence, Draisaitl and Gordon included. That’s essentially a recipe for disaster in the Western Conference.
The Oilers have some decent depth on the wings, particularly on the left side with Taylor Hall, Benoit Pouliot, David Perron and Matt Hendricks. Teddy Purcell will help up front and Mark Fayne will provide some stability on defense, but the Oilers likely aren’t going anywhere until they stop window dressing and improve down the middle. They couldn’t do it through free agency in the summer, and the only way they’ll be able to accomplish it now is through a trade. And if they don’t come to the realization that they’ll have to sacrifice one of their talented young wingers to get it – yes, we mean you, Jordan Eberle – the Oilers will remain a fixture in the lottery and a table in the front row of the NHL draft.