The Oilers conclude their road trip on Tuesday in Nashville against the Predators. You can watch the game on Sportsnet West at 6:00 p.m. MST. It can also be heard on 630 CHED and the Oilers Radio Network.
The stats don't tell the whole story, but they do tell a pretty compelling yarn.
Held pointless in only four games this season. Greater than 20 minutes of icetime on nine separate occasions. Ranked seventh in the NHL in icetime among forwards. Five goals, 10 points in 13 games.
And he just keeps getting better.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been one of the most compelling stories this season for the Edmonton Oilers and it's not just his offensive output -- 10 points through 13 games matches exactly what he did to start last year -- it's the way he has been playing in all areas of the ice, with and without the puck.
“It’s my fourth year in the League now. I definitely wanted to make some big steps personally. Not just offensively but I want to be better away from the puck as well. It doesn’t mean just defensively, it’s all over the ice whether it’s forecheck, neutral zone forecheck or what-not. It’s something I keep working on," said Nugent-Hopkins.
"Confidence is a big thing in this League and I came into this season with a bit more."
That confidence has been noticed by his teammates.
“He’s strong. He makes strong plays all over the ice. What impresses me the most is the d-zone play. He obviously got that nice goal and a nice assist (Sunday in New York) but I saw him battling there in the third period down low," said David Perron. "That’s as hard as I’ve seen him play ever since I’ve been here."
Perron added that Nugent-Hopkins has really become a leader for the team as well, especially by example. And not just for the younger players.
"For a top guy, that’s exactly what we need him to lead for not only the centremen but every forward on the team. Even though I’ve played a few years in the League he’s really leading me to try and improve in all areas of the game."
After the game on Sunday, Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins made a point to recognize the play of Nugent-Hopkins whose goal and assist plus great defensive play late helped propel the team to a 3-1 win.
"Some of our key guys are getting stronger. Again tonight, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. This kid is coming like gangbusters right now and that’s important,” Eakins began.
The coach was asked about the improvement of RNH and one of the big reasons he pointed out was a much better off-season of training -- made possible by declining Canada's invite to the World Championships.
“That was a terribly hard decision for him not to go with Hockey Canada. He loves Hockey Canada. He’s dedicated to them (but) he made the decision not to go. He wanted to get his body totally healthy and get on with training. This is when you see the results to that.
"People were highly critical of him and that’s a hard decision to make. I felt for him making that decision."
Nugent-Hopkins talked about the training and how much it helped.
“Definitely I’ve been feeling a lot better this season. It was a good off-season for me of training. I actually relaxed a little bit at the start and then got some good training in," he said. "Physically I’ve felt really good this season so far and my confidence has been a little higher. Our line, whether it’s Hallsy or Pouliot, have started to work together a lot better this season and really found some chemistry."
Linemate Jordan Eberle agreed that the increase in strength is a key factor.
“He came into this league at a pretty young age. He’s probably gotten more comfortable in the League. Stronger, faster, it’s all translated into him being a better player,” Eberle stated. “You can definitely tell, in the defensive zone he’s playing well down there and checking some of the (other) teams’ top lines and chipping in offensively. It’s impressive to watch.”
Eberle also talked about Nugent-Hopkins' improvement in the face-off circle. He currently sits at 49% after being 37.5%, 41% and 42.4% his first three seasons.
“When you come to this League, that’s one thing that isn’t there in the Western League or college or whatever because teams don’t really focus on (face-offs)," he remarked. "It’s tough for a kid to do that and jump in but he’s definitely gotten better."