‘He’s the heartbeat of our team’: Why everybody loves Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, long-suffering Edmonton Oiler

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DALLAS — Leon Draisaitl is a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins fan.

“He’s so valuable, right? In every facet of the game. He touches every part of it,” the Edmonton Oilers star said of his longtime teammate. “Have you guys ever seen him make a mistake? I really haven’t.”

Nugent-Hopkins rejected his alleged infallibility.

“I make mistakes. I make mistakes, for sure,” he said, laughing. “But you try to limit them. I try to play as smart as I can.”

Kris Knoblauch is also a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins fan.

After Draisaitl joked that Nugent-Hopkins was “a coach’s favorite hockey player in the world,” the Oilers’ current coach agreed that there are times when the Edmonton forward is in fact his favorite player in the world. Like after Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, when Nugent-Hopkins scored two power-play goals to reenergize that struggling unit, hand all the momentum to the Oilers and spark them to a victory over the Dallas Stars that put them ahead 3-2 in the series.

“I actually saw Ryan after the game and I told him that, tonight, he’s my favorite,” the coach said. “Two goals. Played a really big part on the penalty kill, too.”

Edmonton goalie Stuart Skinner has always been a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins fan — in the “collecting his hockey cards, poster on the bedroom wall” sense.

The “Nuge” was his favorite player growing up as a fan, before they became Oilers teammates in 2021.

“That is a little bit embarrassing [to admit] with him sitting right beside me,” Skinner, 25, joked as he and the 31-year-old Nugent-Hopkins chatted with the media after Game 5.

“I truly believe he’s one of the best two-way players in the league. It’s pretty remarkable what this guy does, his work ethic day in and day out,” Skinner said. “But I’m more impressed with the type of person that he is when he is off the ice. He was my favorite player growing up, and being able to play with him, I’ve learned a lot. There’s a lot more to him than just hockey, and that’s been one of the coolest things: to just become great friends with this guy.”

Nugent-Hopkins has a lot of fans rooting for him. He’s the longest-serving Oilers player — 881 career games over 13 seasons — on a team that’s now one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2006. He’s the connective tissue from the Oilers’ era of unfulfilled potential to the reign of Connor McDavid and Draisaitl, who are determined to fulfill their potential as champions.

If they do, Nugent-Hopkins should be one of the first teammates who is handed the Stanley Cup in celebration. He has meant that much to the Oilers.

“I think he’s the heartbeat of our team. He’s the one that shows the culture,” defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. “And he’s been here for long time.”


THE MUSTACHE is trying.

It sits on the upper lip of Nugent-Hopkins, attempting to age up a face that still resembles the one on stage at the 2011 draft, when he was selected with the first pick. His 13 challenging seasons in the NHL haven’t weathered him in body or in spirit.

The first time Nugent-Hopkins put on an Edmonton Oilers jersey was at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The Devils won the lottery that year, but the Oilers, still mired in a multiyear rebuild, retained the first pick with the league’s worst record (62 points).

Nugent-Hopkins was a playmaking center with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League. He was the consensus top pick, but scouts also liked how fellow prospects like defenseman Adam Larsson and forward Gabriel Landeskog projected as NHL players.

On draft day, the Oilers called his name, and the young center was happy that they did.

“It’s a big honor. I know all the great players who have come through Edmonton,” he said. “Just getting to join a franchise like that is a really good feeling.”

Before he was drafted, Nugent-Hopkins visited Edmonton and saw photographs that chronicled all of the Oilers’ previous championship teams, his eyes scanning the faces of over a half-dozen Hall of Famers. He was drafted to join a collection of young players that many felt had the potential to bring Edmonton its first championship since the end of that dynasty.

When Nugent-Hopkins was drafted, the Oilers hadn’t made the playoffs since 2006. That lack of success gave Edmonton an unprecedented run of top-10 picks: By the time the Oilers drafted defenseman Phillip Broberg at No. 8 in 2019, they had selected 11 players in the first 10 picks of the draft over a span of 13 seasons.

Nugent-Hopkins was the second consecutive top pick for Edmonton, which picked winger Taylor Hall No. 1 in 2010. He arrived in Edmonton with Sam Gagner (6th, 2007), Jordan Eberle (22nd, 2008), Magnus Paajarvi (10th, 2009) and Hall already in place; the next two drafts would yield Nail Yakupov, the Oilers’ third straight No. 1 pick, and Darnell Nurse (No. 7, 2013).

Then the game changed. Draisaitl was drafted third in 2014, followed by McDavid at No. 1 in 2015. Their arrival signaled a shift in strategy: The Oilers were not going to be married to their previous high draft choices if they weren’t developing into NHL stars or if they could bring back players to build around their generational talent, McDavid, through trades.

Hall was traded to New Jersey in a one-for-one deal for defenseman Adam Larsson in 2016. Yakupov, considered a significant draft disappointment, was dealt to the Blues in 2016. Eberle was shipped to the New York Islanders in 2017 in a deal for Ryan Strome. Paajarvi was dealt well before that in a trade for David Perron in 2013, while Gagner was traded to the Lightning in 2014.

Nugent-Hopkins felt those winds of change, too. Sportsnet reported in 2016 that the Oilers offered him to the Nashville Predators in a deal to land defenseman Seth Jones, who was eventually traded to Columbus. A search for “Ryan Nugent-Hopkins” and “trade bait” reveals the speculation was an annual rite.

Sportsnet referred to him as “expendable” in light of the Oilers’ depth at center. His contract — $6 million average annual value, locked up for his prime years — was cap-friendly, but his offensive production wasn’t quite where many expected it could be after several seasons in the league. From 2011 to ’18, there were 70 players who amassed more points than Nugent-Hopkins.

In the first eight seasons of his career, the Oilers made the playoffs just once. Those weren’t fun times for him.

“Your early years, especially when you’re coming from junior where you had some success, it can be frustrating, for sure, to be missing the playoffs year in and year out,” Nugent-Hopkins said.

True to form, he pulled some positives out of the negative.

“At the same time, you get extra time to work on your game in the summer. As a young kid, there’s lots to grow into physically and mentally,” he noted. “Just kind of mature. To figure out how you’re going to be a good player in this league.

“But it also makes you hungry to make the most of these opportunities. You understand that it’s not that easy to make the playoffs. Then when you get a chance, you’ve got to be hungry for it.”

Nugent-Hopkins wanted success. More to the point, he wanted it in Edmonton. He followed a seven-year contract with an eight-year deal that he signed in June 2021. He was committed.

The Oilers were soon rewarded for their trust in Nugent-Hopkins.

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Ryan Nugent-Hopkins slaps home his 2nd goal for Oilers

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scores his second goal to pad the Oilers’ lead.


IN THE NHL, there are star offensive players who help run a power play and strong defensive players who are keys to a penalty kill. Rarer are the players who “touch every part of the game” and do it well, as Draisaitl said of Nugent-Hopkins.

It’s something Zach Hyman saw immediately when he joined the Oilers in 2021.

“He touches all aspects of the game. Power play, penalty kill, plays tons at even strength. He’s out in the last minute of the game, whether you’re up or down,” he said. “On the ice, he just does it all for us.”

That’s a point of pride for Nugent-Hopkins. Intangibles that used to seem expendable on less successful teams are now seen as invaluable on a Cup contender: his two-way game and all the little things he does for the Oilers.

“It’s something that I’ve definitely taken a lot of pride in over the years. Worked on both sides of the puck. I want to be relied upon in those situations. You’ve got to be dialed in at all times,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Sometimes the power play can make the difference. Sometimes the PK can make the difference. And sometimes it’s 5-on-5. I want to keep improving on both sides of it and see where we can get.”

His offense started to tick up as McDavid and Draisaitl became more dominant. But the 2022-23 season was like nothing anyone expected from Nugent-Hopkins: 104 points, fueled by 53 points on the Oilers’ incredible power play. He scored 37 goals that season, obliterating his previous career high.

“He’s a big part of the power play,” Knoblauch said. “He’s not the driver, but he’s a great facilitator. He has a lot of good things that help that power play work.”

It worked in Game 5 of the conference finals. The Oilers’ power play was 0-for-6 in the series heading into Friday night. But Nugent-Hopkins scored late in the first period, backhanding the puck past Jake Oettinger after an Evan Bouchard point blast, and then scored again on the power play 1:06 into the second period on a snap shot from the slot.

“If you’re going to draw a road game, that’s pretty much what you want to do, right?” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “They want to come out, get two power-play goals early in the game, get the lead and then defend well all night. So it’s tough to crack through.”

The Stars were 0-for-2 on their power plays, and 0-for-11 in the series. Nugent-Hopkins has played a major role in that, leading all Oilers forwards in short-handed ice time (9:46) against Dallas.

The way Nugent-Hopkins plays epitomizes how the Oilers have been able to keep the Stars in check: smart hockey, nothing too flashy and with minimal mistakes.

“It starts with getting through the neutral zone, not turning pucks over and not giving them anything easy coming back at us,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Sometimes you got to live to fight another day. You don’t need to be too aggressive.”

Nugent-Hopkins has seen more days as an Edmonton Oiler than any of his teammates. Most of them were disappointing.

But they’re finally getting better — and the Oilers are now five wins away from the day Nugent-Hopkins and his many fans have been waiting to experience.

“This is why we play. Why we work so hard at our craft to get ourselves in these situations and to be a part of a group like this,” Nugent-Hopkins said.

“When you’re in it, there not a lot of time to sit back and reflect too much. But this is all you can ask for. It’s going to take a lot of work, but we have an opportunity here.”



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