COLUMBUS – Despite some high-profile cancellations, a lot of players are happy to be at the NHL All-Star Game in Columbus this weekend. For some, it’s the chance to treat friends and family to a grand experience. For others, it’s the camaraderie on the ice. But Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins may also sneak in some time to do some fact-finding in Ohio.
As even the casual hockey fan knows, Nugent-Hopkins’ Edmonton Oilers have been through some tough sledding for the past few seasons, which is why they were in a position to snag him first overall in the 2011 draft. They also got Taylor Hall No. 1 the year before that and Nail Yakupov first overall the year after ‘The Nuge’ donned an Edmonton sweater on the draft stage.
And while teams such as Chicago, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles all parlayed rebuilds into Stanley Cup titles in the past decade, Edmonton has been stuck in the mud. The Oilers’ young core (which also includes later first-rounder Jordan Eberle) still hasn’t even sniffed the playoffs and that can be difficult for an elite player to grasp. Luckily, Nugent-Hopkins will be surrounded by winners this weekend.
“It’ll be cool to hang out with those guys, see what they’re like in the dressing room,” he said. “We see them on the ice, but I don’t often get a chance to see them in the room.”
One question I would certainly ask if I were in Nugent-Hopkins’ skates is how to deal with losing year after year.
“It’s hard to preach patience to a player,” said Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, the first overall pick in 2008. “You want to win now, you want to be the best player now. That’s just your competitive instinct as a player. For him, they’re obviously going through a tough time but they have the pieces there – they have the young talent.”
Stamkos has won a Rocket Richard Trophy and helped the Lightning get within one goal of the Stanley Cup final back in 2011, but he knows the wars it took just to reach that plateau.
“We’re just seeing it (come together) in Tampa and this is my seventh year. You might have a run like we did, where we had a lot of veteran guys and you think you’ll get back there the next year and then you miss the playoffs the next two years. You have to go through an experience like that to realize how tough it is to win in this league.”
Marc-Andre Fleury was the last goaltender to go first overall (and perhaps the last ever) when Pittsburgh called his name out in 2003 and became part of a sick young core as the Penguins added Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal in subsequent drafts. Fleury tended net when the Pens went to the Cup final in 2008 and again when they won it all the next season. He echoes Stamkos’ sentiment when it comes to the journey that Nugent-Hopkins and the Oilers are currently on.
“The tough times make you realize what it takes,” Fleury said. “You have to keep working through it and it will come. They have good players and I’m sure they’ll turn it around. Then they’ll enjoy the good times even more.”
Drew Doughty make have “only” gone second overall behind Stamkos in 2008, but the gifted defenseman already has two Cups and two Olympic gold medals to his name. Like the others, Doughty still had to tough it out when he joined a Los Angeles Kings franchise that had gone moribund before his arrival.
“It’s just part of hockey,” Doughty said. “When you’re a high pick it usually means your team wasn’t good the year before. My first year we didn’t make the playoffs, my second year we finally did after, I think 10 years of the Kings not making it. It’s part of becoming a better team.”
Which is the next step for Edmonton. Things still seem dire for the Oilers, as veterans brought in to stabilize the young core haven’t always worked out and goaltending remains a question mark. More young talent is still coming up, particularly on defense with Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom, but the post-season is basically an impossibility once again this season.
Still, Nugent-Hopkins can look around the dressing room this weekend and see players who have gone through what he is going through right now. Stamkos, Doughty and Fleury are just three examples of players who can verify that it gets better.
“You have to remind yourself of that,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “We all want to make that jump and start being a successful team. We’ve definitely made some strides in the right direction but we know it’s a process and we have to keep with it.’