EDMONTON, AB – It’s not often a short summer vacation is a positive, but for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the Oilers, it couldn’t be short enough.
“It’s the shortest summer I’ve had so far and that’s a good thing,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “I know the buzz around the room is excitement and we’re eager to get going.”
There are plenty of reasons to be excited for those in Oil Country. Last season’s trip to the Western Conference Final was the deepest Nugent-Hopkins and the Oilers have been in the postseason over his 11 NHL seasons. The forward has been witness to a myriad of highlights and low lights over the last decade, but excitement and optimism is boiling over with such a talented, and now, playoff hardened group entering 2022 Oilers Training Camp.
“If you look through the lineup, like you said, I think we’re as deep as a team I’ve ever been a part of,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “We keep getting better and more experienced. The longer we play together, the more we learn from each other and want to keep growing as a group.”
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For Nugent-Hopkins, the short summer didn’t get in the way of offseason work. The letdown that was the 2017-18 season is still very fresh in the minds of many of the Oilers longest serving players. Edmonton was full of expectations after narrowly falling to the Anaheim Ducks in emotional fashion during Round 2 of the NHL Playoffs in 2017. Nugent-Hopkins was a member of the young squad that was unable to meet the weight of next season’s expectations, as the Oilers finished with a 36-40-6 record and failed to qualify for the postseason.
Now the team is a little older, a little wiser, and the anticipation of this year’s goals and the work that comes with it is being embraced by the locker room.
“I think we have experience now. We’ve learned from that,” Nugent-Hopkins said about the difference between this Oilers team and others past. “The year before last, we got swept (by Winnipeg) and came back and we wanted more. We want to keep getting better and better.”
“We can’t take anything for granted,” he continued. “It’s a tough league to make the playoffs. It’s going to be month-by-month here and you need a good start. The buzz right now is positive and exciting and we definitely want to get back out there.”
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For Nuge, there was a single point of contention that stuck out to him in his personal game and it is one that had always been considered a strength of his — his shot. When he was drafted first overall out of the Red Deer Rebels back in 2011, the young center was well regarded for his sneaky release and his accurate puck placement. The 29-year-old has used that shot to accumulate 196 goals over 716 NHL games throughout his pro career, averaging an 11.5 percent shooting percentage over that time.
Last season was different. Nugent-Hopkins saw that average dip to 7.1 percent, the lowest it’s been since his second season and only the third time in his 11 seasons that his shooting percentage has been below double digits.
“At this point I’m always trying to round out my game every year. I think the thing you can work on a lot is your shot,” Nugent-Hopkins said about his offseason goals. “Last year, I wasn’t too happy with the way I was producing with my shooting percentage, so I worked on it and got it back to where I’m confident in it. That’s the main thing I focused on.”
Now the emphasis transitions to training camp and the season that lies ahead. The constant striving to get better is expected to be a theme for an Oilers roster ready to make another run. Last season’s trip to the Western Conference Final represents both motivation and unfinished business for the 11-year vet.
“The goal is the Stanley Cup. I think every team that you ask is going to say the same thing,’ Nugent-Hopkins said. “After the season, only one team is ever truly happy. Your happy and you take some confidence taking steps forward and going to the final four. That was a good step for us and we’re happy to have done it, but there is more to be had and that is obviously the goal.”