He was the No. 1 pick, he’s been compared to The Great One, and he definitely is one to watch in the NHL.
Indeed, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has long been worthy of top billing.
Edmonton sure thought so when it made the teen sensation the first pick of the draft in June and decided to keep him on the roster at the start of the season. Nugent-Hopkins proved his worth in a hurry, leading the Oilers in goals and points, while zooming to the top of the list of candidates for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the league’s outstanding rookie.
Oh, and he has the Oilers in contention for their first playoff spot since 2006.
No wonder Edmonton’s locker-room underwent a makeover following a recent practice. Space was needed for an upcoming photo shoot reserved just for him.
RNH, as he’s called, is truly set for the bright lights that come with NHL stardom.
“I’m getting a little bit more comfortable,” Nugent-Hopkins said of life in the media spotlight. “I’ve done a few (shoots) this year, so I’m starting to get the hang of it a little bit. The first couple I did were kind of different. I had to learn about it and take it in stride.”
There’s been no awkward adjustment to life in the NHL, though.
His two months in the league have netted him 12 goals and two rookie-of-the-month awards. Nugent-Hopkins is the first player to win the award in his first two months since Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin in 2006. He also has a hat trick on his resume, and is on pace to crack 90 points.
But he’s more than numbers. Nugent-Hopkins, 18, has burst onto the scene while shrugging off the expectations and pressure that come with being a young star in Edmonton and the natural comparisons with Wayne Gretzky—The Great One—who won four Stanley Cup titles in Edmonton’s high-wire heyday of the 1980s.
A ruthless scorer on the ice, Nugent-Hopkins is humbled by the comparison.
“When I hear them, it’s kind of funny to hear,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Wayne Gretzky is obviously the greatest hockey player who ever played, so I don’t think you can really compare me to him, but it is nice to hear.
“I guess it just really means that people think nice things of me.”
With good reason. He’s part of a young core that has brought the first wave of hockey excitement to Edmonton since a 2006 loss in the Stanley Cup final versus Carolina. Taylor Hall, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, and former first-rounders Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Ales Hemsky have a team that finished last in the NHL in back-to-back seasons ready to make a move and become a fixture in the post-season—and eventual Cup contender—for years.
Keep in mind, this is a town that still refers to itself as “The City of Champions.”
Clearly, they want another one.
“Right when I came in, the guys kind of took me in and made me feel really comfortable here,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “So going to a team like this, where they do that, it really helped me out a ton. Playing with the guys I’ve been playing with, it’s just been huge for me. They make things so much easier.”
The Oilers could have sent Nugent-Hopkins back to his junior team, the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League, for more seasoning and, for contractual reasons, still could make that move. The Oilers can return him to Red Deer before he plays 40 games without having this season count as service toward unrestricted free agency.
The centre led the WHL last season with 75 assists, and was the first WHL player to be drafted first since 1996. His point-a-game production makes that scenario—where he’d be sent back—implausible at this stage and might cause a revolt in Edmonton.
But his instant success isn’t a total surprise around the NHL.
Unlike the NFL, NBA or major league baseball, where No. 1 picks are as much about guesswork as a scouting report, the top draft picks in hockey almost always become stars.
Hall and Hopkins are blossoming standouts in Edmonton.
Islanders forward John Tavares (2009), Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos (2008), and Chicago’s Patrick Kane (2007) have been among the best players in the league since their rookie seasons. Columbus captain Rick Nash (2002), Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury (2003) and Sidney Crosby (2005) and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin (2004) prove that franchise players can indeed be found at the top of the draft board.
There’s not a JaMarcus Russell, Greg Oden or Bryan Bullington in the bunch.
Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said hockey players are more ready for the big leagues compared to their professional counterparts because of years of international experience, global tournaments, and playing against different styles from players in Russia, Sweden or Canada.
“Some of these other leagues get these guys after they’ve been in college for a few years and they’re drafted when they’re 20 or 21—and there’s a huge difference in development, obviously,” he said. “It should be more difficult in the NHL than what these other leagues are experiencing, but the fact that teams are getting it right in our league shows that our league, as a whole, does a pretty good job in the draft.”
Kane, Fleury and Crosby have all won Stanley Cups. The Oilers are counting on Hall and Nugent-Hopkins to eventually produce a championship.
“You’ve got to get it right,” McPhee said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re picking first overall in the draft or 30th overall in the draft, if you want to be a good team, you can’t make mistakes very often. In the (salary) cap world, you have to have young talent coming into your lineup all the time.”
There’s plenty of young talent among this year’s crop of rookies. Nugent-Hopkins headlines a class that includes Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier and Matt Read, Nashville’s Craig Smith and New Jersey’s Adam Larsson.
Read already boasts two three-point periods this season, the first Flyers rookie to have a three-point period since 2004. He also had the longest goal-scoring streak for a Flyers rookie since 2004.
So, clearly, rookie standouts are all over the NHL.
But you can find the best one in Edmonton.
AP Sports Writer Joseph White in Washington contributed to this report.