Originally written on NHL Hot Stove  |  Last updated 4/21/12

By Kathryn Uggerholt

This weekend, Sam Gagner could return to the Edmonton Oilers lineup, placing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins under the spotlight more than ever. Has he proved he should stay with the club after nine games?

The question arises now as to whether or not Nugent-Hopkins will stay, or even play, as coach Tom Renney said he is considering benching the rookie in the team’s tilt against the New York Rangers on Saturday night. Renney is likely trying to buy time to put off the decision of sending Nugent-Hopkins back to the WHL to play with the Red Deer Rebels but he probably does not need to.

As it stands Friday, the center leads the team in points through six games. Nugent-Hopkins has four goals and five points, just one ahead of veteran Ryan Smyth. It should be noted that each of those goals has been a milestone in one way or another. The first came at the game tying goal in the Oilers’ season opening game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, his first career goal in his first career game. The next three goals all came in a match up with the Vancouver Canucks as his first career hat trick.

The young forward may not be the best at taking face-offs but it is undeniable that he should remain in Edmonton. The way that Nugent-Hopkins dominated the WHL last year and excelled on his team  just goes to show that there is nothing left for him to learn there. He has certainly earned a job but whether the team finds it prudent to keep him is the real question.

There is a lot of depth at center for the Oilers, especially with the return Gagner who put up 42 points last year. Though more experience may be more desired, a team chock full of rookies is a perfect place for the teenager to learn. In preseason, he gained chemistry on a line with both Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, and in regular season, he continues to click with Hall.

Critics still point out the size of Nugent-Hopkins and how it can work against him but so far he has been fine — just a few years ago Patrick Kane proved he could play at a smaller size directly following his draft year. His small size allows him to be quick and he has plenty of teammates ready to stick up for him. The best he can do is continue to try and bulk up (at the risk of losing speed) as the season goes on but returning him to juniors would do nothing on that part.

A major thing Nugent-Hopkins needs to work on is face-offs. As a result of his struggles he took only three face-offs in the game against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night. Putting in Gagner over Nugent-Hopkins would be counter-effective as the team is rebuilding. Nevertheless. the team will have some tough decisions to make as the schedule wears on.

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