TORONTO – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins didn’t think that, five years into his NHL career, he’d have more head coaches than playoff games to his credit, and yet here we are.
“This will be my fifth coach in five years,” he said, during the NHL Players Tour last week in Toronto. “It’s unfortunate. You get attached to coaches with their systems. Personally, you become friends. It’s tough to see guys go.”
His rookie coach was Tom Renney, in 2011-12. Then came Ralph Krueger for 48 games, post lockout. Then Dallas Eakins, for part of two seasons before Todd Nelson took over last year with an assist from Craig MacTavish.
Nugent-Hopkins sees Krueger, who will coach Team Europe in the World Cup of Hockey next fall, as the one that got away.
“We all really liked Ralph,” he said. “Super intelligent guy. Really knew how to handle the players well, and we only had a short season with him. It was tough to lose him.”
Losing coaches takes it toll on the Oilers, and not just because it’s like hitting the reset button five times in five years. Nugent-Hopkins said the players start taking it personally; that their own lack of success is the reason why this cycle has perpetuated and why good people keep losing their jobs.
“It kind of goes hand-in-hand: The worst we play as a team, the more likely the coach will be on his way out. Unfortunately that’s the way it’s been for the last four years for me,” he said.
Now comes Todd McLellan, who coached 540 games for the San Jose Sharks before a mutual parting of ways after last season, his first outside the playoffs as an NHL head coach.
“I know a few guys in San Jose, and they don’t have enough good things to say about Todd. I just heard he’s a great guy off the ice. Really good person,” he said. “Todd’s an experienced guy, coming into a younger group than he’s used to.”
Edmonton’s preseason roster has 28 players that are 25 and younger. That includes Nugent-Hopkins, with 258 games to his credit, as well as returning core players in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov.
It also includes this guy Connor McDavid that you may have heard mentioned here or there.
Nugent-Hopkins was half-watching the NHL Draft lottery when the Oilers won it. He only realized it happened when his phone went nuclear with congratulatory, and bewildered, text messages.
Is he looking forward to having McDavid play on his wing?
“Yes!” he said, clapping his hands with a laugh, fully knowing that McDavid is destined for top line center duty.
“I think that’s where we’ll place him. I know he spent a little time on the wing in junior, but I know he’s more comfortable at center.”
Which means that Nugent-Hopkins, who played a career-high 20:38 per game last season, will likely see a different role.“Last year my minutes were pretty high. I think they’ll come down a little now, which should help me out too. And if I can take the pressure off him a little bit, I’ll do that for sure,” he said.
Nugent-Hopkins is 22, but within the context of the Oilers he’s a veteran leader. The team captain is currently veteran defenseman Andrew Ference, but there’s speculation that the ‘C’ could be passed to Hall or Nugent-Hopkins this season.
But the center says that it doesn’t matter who wears the letter; leadership is on all of them.
“In our locker room, we’ve done a really good job of meshing everyone together: the veteran guys and the younger guys,” he said. “Whoever steps into that role, it’s not just going to be about one guy. Everyone has to step up and lead.”
Lead, and succeed, in a way they haven’t in the previous four years of Nugent-Hopkins’s career.
“We’ve had good coaches over the years. We haven’t played well enough to keep them,” he said.
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