by PuckStopsHere on 10/30/11 at 05:08 PM ET
I like to track the leaders for awards as the season progresses. I think there is a clear top rookie at this point in the season. It is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers. He has nine points in ten games and is tied for the rookie led with Luke Adam of Buffalo. Nugent-Hopkins leads his Oiler team in goals and is tied for the point lead with Jordan Eberle. His +3 +/- rating is the second highest on his team.
Nugent-Hopkins was the top pick in the 2011 Entry Draft and is expected to be a big part of the Edmonton Oiler future. However, there are reasons to doubt that Nugent-Hopkins is as good as his numbers show. He may not be able to maintain this level of dominance over an entire season. He has been a beneficiary of playing against a very poor calibre of opposition. If he plays against top opposition, he will probably not be able to put up these numbers. In fact a strong argument can be made that he shouldn’t be in the NHL this season.
The argument is not that Nugent-Hopkins is not ready for NHL competition. It appears that he is. That really isn’t relevant. Teams regularly make roster decisions based on waiver eligibility and salary cap hits. Teams do not pick the best possible roster; they often pick rosters for non-hockey reasons. There are compelling non-hockey reasons to keep Nugent-Hopkins out of the NHL.
A player achieves unrestricted free agency when his contract expires if he is 27 years old or if he has played seven NHL seasons. If a player starts playing in the NHL at age 18, he will reach seven seasons by age 25. A typical NHL player will be better from age 19-26 or 20-27 than he will be from 18-25. This is because a player in his mid to late twenties is better developed and closer to his prime than a teenager. A team is better served by making sure that they get as good as possible a group of seasons from a player in the years he is going to serve the team.
The most underpaid players in the league in any season are typically superstars who are still on entry level contracts. In a salary capped league it is valuable to have significantly underpaid players. In fact it appears to be a necessary condition in the salary capped NHL to win a Stanley Cup. Superstar players on entry level contracts who recently won Stanley Cups include Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The Edmonton Oilers have a young core full of potential and it is possible that they could be a Stanley Cup contender if they develop properly. Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Magnus Paajarvi are all on entry level contracts that expire next season. At that point, the Oilers will not be likely Stanley Cup contenders yet. Each of these players will likely have earned large new contracts that will eat up a significant portion of the Oilers salary cap space. Keeping Nugent-Hopkins on an entry level contract as long as possible into the future will help the Oilers keep their core below the salary cap for as long as possible. If Nugent-Hopkins did not stay in the NHL this season, his entry level contract would not have begun this season. He would remain on the cheaper entry level contract three years into the future instead of two. That extra year might be the year when the Oilers have their best shot at a Stanley Cup.
Salary cap management is probably the most important skill of an NHL GM today. Keeping Nugent-Hopkins out of the NHL would do a lot to help the Oilers manage their cap situation. Keeping him in the league increases the likelihood of future salary cap problems.
It is true that keeping Nugent-Hopkins out of the NHL would cost the Oilers a few wins, but this is not a top team where those wins matter much. The Oilers may currently lead the Northwest Division, but it is an unsustainable start. The Oilers have the second lowest goals per game in the league (Minnesota is the only team below them and not by any significant amount). The Oilers are winning because they are keeping goals out of their net. Nikolai Khabibulin has had an unsustainable start to the season. He is no longer a good NHL-level goalie, yet he currently leads the league with a 0.97 GAA and a .964 saves percentage. There is no way he can keep up those numbers. Likely his final numbers this season will be below average for a starting goalie. When that happens, the Oilers will drop significantly in the standings. In the end, they will likely have a poor year with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, so why not do it without him if it has a significant value in the future?
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been the best rookie in the league so far this season. It is entirely possible that he could win the rookie of the year this season. Despite that, it would quite likely be in the Edmonton Oilers best interests if he was kept out of the NHL this season.
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