Appreciating all that the 2011 first overall pick has done and still can do for the Oilers
As of right now, the Edmonton Oilers all-time games played leader is Kevin Lowe with 1037. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has played 656 career games, all of which have been with the Oilers. He also recently signed an 8-year extension that should put him on track to handily break that record. Aside from that, it’s unlikely he’ll find his name in too many record books. He’s only ever received votes for an award once since his rookie year (a 24th place finish in Selke voting in 2019-20) and he’s never even led the team in points. Despite all that, I think that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is someone who when it’s all said and done, should go down as one of the Oilers all-time greats, and someone we should appreciate while he’s still playing.
Flash back to the year 2011. Rough times for Oilers fans. Coming off their second consecutive last place finish in the NHL, the Oilers were awarded the first overall pick in the draft for what would be the second of three straight. Coming off 106 points in his final WHL season, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was the consensus number one prospect and the Oilers agreed, selecting him first overall. The hype around this kid was real and along with Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, who’d already been given the nickname “The Nuge”, was expected to help turn the franchise around.
If you get three straight first overall picks, you’d generally expect that they would turn things around for your team. Things aren’t always that simple though. Despite a season in which Nugent-Hopkins finished second in both Calder voting and rookie scoring (behind Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog in both) the Oilers were once again at the bottom of the barrel, finishing second to last in the NHL. Things didn’t go much better in the following years either, and by the time the Oilers had drafted Connor McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins fell out of the spotlight and slipped into more of a secondary role with the new team. He didn’t really live up the hype that surrounded him when he entered the league and that era of early 2010’s Oilers never found the success that had hoped they would. But that isn’t all you should look at when judging Nugent-Hopkins’ career.
If you looked at the Nuge’s career achievements, you really wouldn’t see that much. He represented the Oilers in the 2015 All-Star Game but he’s never competed for a Hart trophy or Art Ross, let alone won one. That’s not what should define a great player though. Nugent-Hopkins was taken first overall just a few years before the NHL hit a golden age of first overall picks. From 2013-2016, Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews were all selected with the first pick in their drafts and these are undoubtedly three of the leagues best players. This seems to have given people the impression that if you’re taken first overall and you’re not one of the best players in the league you’re a disappointment. That’s a stupid idea. That’s not who the Nuge is. He’s probably never going to win a Hart trophy or even compete for one. He likely won’t be a Hall of Famer either. But look at the situation he was thrown into. As an 18-year-old kid, he was sent to play for the absolute worst team in the league and expected to turn them around. Most people couldn’t handle that. Any reasonable person would probably want to leave which is why no one who played with him during his first two seasons is still with the team or have been for years. He’s the last of that era of the Oilers. He suffered through those years at the bottom just like all the fans did and he’s till here today just like trying to make the years of suffering worth it.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is about the enter his 11th NHL season and by now he’s far from the young face of the franchise he used to be and he doesn’t have to be, that’s what McDavid and Draisaitl are for. When you think of the Nuge don’t think about him as some first overall pick who was never the best. Appreciate him for what he is, the only player who’s stayed in Edmonton all this time. The only one that through the years of disappointment, has always been there. Even if he never wins it all, when his jersey is hanging from the rafter, think back to this and remember him for being the one who stuck it out.