Originally written on Red Light District Hockey  |  Last updated 10/19/11

With several teams already returning 2011 draft picks back to juniors, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is making it difficult for Edmonton management to think about sending him back to Red Deer of the WHL. With five points in five NHL games (including one hat trick), Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini is in the unenviable position of deciding whether or not Nugent-Hopkins will remain with the team for the rest of the season.

There's no question that Nugent-Hopkins needs physical development. At 6'1" and just 175 pounds, he could use another year of development in the WHL, and easily slip back into the line-up next season a year older and a year bigger. With his slight frame, he risks injury being hit by players much larger than he is. Nugent-Hopkins himself pushes that issue aside, saying, "I think the most important thing for me is using my hockey sense to my advantage. I'm not the biggest guy or anything, so I have to use what I have to my advantage."

Given that Nugent-Hopkins has already put up a point per game in this young season, providing firepower to a still-struggling team, the question becomes: Is his scoring for the Oilers more important than putting muscle on his frame? What takes precedence?

Nugent-Hopkins realizes that the Oilers still have a few games left to make the decision whether or not to send him to Red Deer. NHL teams can play rookies for nine regular season games and still return them to their junior clubs without their entry-level contract kicking in. In Nugent-Hopkins' eyes, he's still competing for a spot with the Oilers - even after his hat trick against the Vancouver Canucks, which broke Dale Hawerchuk's record for the earliest hat trick by a first overall draft pick.

"There's a lot of other little things that I need to do to get a definite spot on the team," Nugent-Hopkins said to reporters the morning after his hat trick. "This morning I woke up and tried to forget about last night, so I could get focused and play my best."

With the nine-game clock ticking at five games left, Nugent-Hopkins said, "I’m taking it one game at a time, using the nine games as motivation."

Aside from his scoring prowess, Nugent-Hopkins is incredibly coachable, easily taking coaching suggestions and acting upon them to improve his play.

"The message from the coaches was to go hard into the blue paint and I’ve been trying to do that," he said after his hat trick. All three goals he scored against Vancouver were a result of crashing the net. And while Nugent-Hopkins started out poorly in the face-off dot, his winning percentage has steadily improved each game, up to 41.7% in Monday's game against the Predators.

Oilers Captain Shawn Horcoff said that after seeing Nugent-Hopkins play, he knows the decision will be a tough one for Oilers brass. "He's got great skill and great poise with the puck," Horcoff said. "He's proven himself to this point. As the games get more intense, we're going to see if he can handle it. I don't think it's any secret he's going to be a great player for us - if not this year then next year and definitely into the future. It's when, not if."

Where does Nugent-Hopkins think he should end up this season? "Guys here are a lot more experienced. I think I'd learn a lot more here," he said.

The choice is not up to him, but as long as he keeps making it harder to send him packing, there's a good chance Nugent-Hopkins will get his wish.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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