Hey Todd: Please play Nuge less next year

That’s right, you heard me.  I want to see LESS of the Nuge next year!

Now before you start warming up the hate mail generator, let me explain.

Cause here I sit, mulling next years playoff chances for the Edmonton Oilers.  And I ask myself “what has to go right for the Oilers to climb all the way out of last season’s enormous goal differential black hole and get back to respectability?”

What has to happen?

The answer of course is: many things!

Goaltending is first and foremost.  But decent goaltending will only make up about half the differential.  A lot of other things have to go right too.

One of those things is that Our Toddler Nuge (he’s a couple of years from being Our Man Nuge) – in what is likely his last year as the Oilers 1C – must play like a 1C.

Play like a 1C?  Wait a second, wasn’t Nuge the Oilers’ undisputed 1C last year?  Yes he was.  And we know he’ll be the 1C next year too, while some kid named Connor gets his NHL feet wet.  And last year, for the most part, Nuge did indeed play like a 1C.  His skating, vision, and playmaking have been elite since he started in the league.  His two-way play last year was excellent, and getting better.  Even his faceoffs were starting to climb up to adequate.

Yet despite all of the things he did well last year, he didn’t do one key thing: he didn’t score like a 1C.

Not enough scoring

His 0.74 pts/g put him at 31st in the league among the players listed as centres by NHL.com.

That’s decent, for sure, and at the top of the range for 2C – but it’s not the elite 1C production we’d hope to see out of a #1 overall pick.  And that’s certainly at least a part of why the Oilers finished just 26th in the league in goals scored.

Now before you think I’m here to write a puff piece slam job on Nuge, let me state that this is far from the case!  I’m a huge Nuge fan, and ever since he entered the league, I’ve believed his long-term comparable is Pavel Datsyuk.  In other words, elite two-way play combined with elite scoring.  I still believe it.  After all, at the same age as Nuge is now, Datsyuk wasn’t even in the NHL yet!

And I also believe that next year is the year Nuge may very well go supernova as far as his scoring goes, and jump into that elite 1C tier for scoring.

But I believe something important has to happen in order for that to occur: Todd McLellan must play Nuge less.

Visually better

Sounds counter-intuitive, right?  Play less, score more? But we do know a few things on the topic from last year:

  • Among the players listed at C by NHL.com, the Nuge finished second in TOI/G, at 20:38 mins, just two seconds behind John Tavares. That’s a heavy load for any 21 yo, let alone one on the wrong side of 200 lbs.
  • Nuge’s scoring was modest up until the all-star break – well below 1C standards.
  • After the all-star break, Nuge appeared to come back refreshed and re-energized. Yes, he was visually better!
  • Todd Nelson moderated Nuge’s TOI per game after the break, so it appeared that Nuge stayed fresh(er) as the Oiler season wound down to its stomach turning finish.
  • And yet there was a bright spot. The power play surged.  Nuge’s scoring jumped to elite levels.  He and Eberle were among the top scoring duos in the league post-break.

So the eyes are telling us what?

Telling us that Nuge’s scoring worked in synch with his energy levels … and inversely to his TOI.  Seems obvious, right?  Play Nuge less, and he’ll score more!

But there is a confounding factor here … and his name is Dallas Eakins.

In general, the entire team seemed to play with more energy after Todd Nelson took over.  Especially on the power play, where the Nuge is acknowledged to be a witch.  (Tyler: why isn’t he a wizard?)

So maybe it was an Eakins/Nelson thing, and not a TOI thing at all.

Is there any reason to believe that TOI was a factor in Nuge’s resurgence, rather than, say, Todd Nelson?

Why yes.  Yes there is.

The numbers – crunched and delicious

I did a simple exercise to test this.  I looked at Nuge’s points/60 (all situations) and his TOI/game for three different splits: Eakins, Nelson pre-All-Star, and Nelson post-All-Star.  Let’s have a look:

Split Average TOI/game Points/60
Eakins 21:24 1.81
Nelson pre-All-Star 21:12 (proof that the Nuge shall inherit the Earth) 1.76
Nelson post-All-Star 19:40 2.60

Pretty dramatic, yes?  Nuge’s TOI post-Nelson but prior to the break barely budged, down about 12 secs per game.  His scoring actually declined ever so slightly when Nelson first took over.  Common sense suggests that playing twenty one plus minutes a game all season, facing the best of the best, facing the monsters of the West, is tiring.

But then after the break, Nelson dropped Nuge’s TOI by a full minute and a half.  Why?  I don’t know.  I don’t recall hearing anything in interviews or anything else.  He just did.  Maybe it was from having Derek Roy as an actual 2C available.

Whatever the reason … Nuge’s points spiked.  By almost a point per 60!  That’s a huge jump.

Other things

Now to be realistic, there are unquestionably lots of factors in Nuge’s resurgence, not just TOI.  Eberle’s game improved too, and we can assume that he was recovered from the early season hand injury impacted him.  That would affect Nuge too, obviously.

So it would be silly to state simply that the reduced ice time was the reason Nuge scored more.

But even so, this does confirm the eye test.  It did look like the big minutes were wearing on the Nuge early, and it showed.  Once he had a chance to recover and also face less time per game, his scoring improved.  It’s not the only factor, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and say I’m pretty confident it is *a* factor, and probably a significant one.

Bottom line

I think anything under 20 mins a game next year is Golden for Nuge.

Keep him at that, and I think that 2.6 points per 60 over a full season may be achievable – and would have the Nuge sitting solidly in the middle of the pack for 1C scoring.  Combine that with the continued evolution of his two-way game … and you really have got yourself Pavel Datsyuk v2.0.

So Toddy Mc: please play Nuge a little bit less next year.  It’s a win-win-win!

[Insert obligatory Nuge-might-finally-hit-50-points inside joke here]

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3 thoughts on “Hey Todd: Please play Nuge less next year

  1. Did the ratio of ev/pp/pk mins change very much post all-star break? I seem to recall it being mainly ev minutes that got cut but if he lost a significant amount of pk time then the spike in p/60 would be expected, would it not?

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    1. Never mind I just did a quick back of the envelope calculation and even if it was entirely pk minutes that were cut his p/60 would only be expected to go up by around 0.1 and not the near full point it did. Looks like playing him less is an excellent idea. Of course given the other options available at centre last year I’m not sure that playing him so much was that bad of an idea.

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      1. Good thought. I did consider that, but reached the same conclusion as you did (that pk probably wouldn’t affect the points much, except to the extent Nuge didn’t get as fatigued). Thanks for calculating it, always good to have a back-of-envelope confirmation.

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