NASHVILLE – Before the season there were doubts as to whether Edmonton Oilers rookie – and first overall selection in the 2011 draft – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would be NHL-ready. As his first season winds down, he has left no doubt in the minds of his teammates and players around the league that he has all the makings of becoming an elite player – if he isn’t already.
If there was one reason for the doubters in relation to his readiness for the greatest league in the world, it was due to Nugent-Hopkins’ size; the 18-year-old stands at 6’1”, 175 pounds. Despite missing 20 games with a shoulder injury, his rookie season has been better than many expected.
“He’s a smaller guy, but he’s tenacious,” said Ryan Smyth, one of the handful of veterans that have helped Nugent-Hopkins’ transition from the WHL to the NHL. “The thing is, he’s like a sponge and wants to learn more and be better as a pro. Just observing and watching, that’s how you’re going to learn. He’s a prime example of that, for sure.”
Nugent-Hopkins has 45 points through 53 games and is in contention for the Calder Trophy, given to the NHL’s top rookie at the end of the season.
“His ability to do what he did at junior at this level has impressed me, in respect to navigating the NHL game and still being effective as a puck-mover and playmaker,” Oilers head coach Tom Renney said.
When you ask his peers what impresses them the most about ‘RNH’, as most refer to him, they say it’s his vision.
“He’s got great vision, man,” raved Smyth, who first broke into the league in 1994 at 19 years of age. “He’s probably one of the better players I’ve seen as far as vision goes… next to Gretzky. I’m not trying to compare the two, but he’s an elite player and there’s something special about him.”
Oilers winger Jordan Eberle added, “He sees the ice incredibly and gets in the right spots to make the right play. The big knock against him was his size, but his smarts have overcome that.”
Nugent-Hopkins, who mentioned faceoffs as his biggest adjustment at this level, has played much of the season alongside fellow youngsters Taylor Hall (currently concussed) and Eberle. They make for a dynamic trio and will only get better with age – which is hard to fathom.
“It’s a lot of fun playing with them,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better start [to my career]. I’ve gotten lucky to be able to play with so many great players. When the three of us are playing together it’s been pretty fun.”
The standout rookie also mentioned that Hall and Eberle have helped him off the ice, too, since they were recently in his same situation.
“It has definitely helped. It’s real easy to talk to them and get a feel for things. Right when I came to the team they were two guys I relied on to help me through everything,” Nugent-Hopkins said.
Eberle said of ‘RNH’, “He marvels you every night.”
The quick jump to the NHL for a teenager can be tough – not only on the ice, but off of it as well. On top of his near point-per-game production, Nugent-Hopkins has also done well in adjusting to the NHL life.
“He’s got the wherewithal to understand the rigors of the schedule. He’s a very focused young fella and shows good judgment. He takes really good care of himself,” Renney said.
Smyth added, “What really catches my eye is – whether it’s lunches or on the plane, he waits for the other guys to go through. He’s very observing that way and very respectful.”
Nugent-Hopkins has been living with Ryan Jones and rooming with him away from home. Guys like Smyth and team captain Shawn Horcoff have taken ‘RNH’ under his wing off the ice, inviting him over for dinner and making him feel as much as a part of the team as everyone else.
“I didn’t really know what to expect coming into the NHL, but it’s definitely been a lot of fun and every day I try to learn something new,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “The team I came to is great with so many young guys, but the veteran players help lead us.”
There’s no doubt that Nugent-Hopkins is a special player, proving everyone why the Oilers selected him first overall last summer.
“The arrow is pointing up for this young fella,” Renney said. “He’s just going to keep getting better and better.”
Photo credit: Getty Images
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