TORONTO – Recent history suggests two of them will still be wearing NHL sweaters in October.
As Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog and Jonathan Huberdeau pulled on the uniform of their new NHL teams Tuesday morning, each expressed a strong desire to continue wearing it all season. With training camps approaching, the top three picks from June’s draft feel tantalizingly close to finally realizing their NHL dream.
“I just want to wear this sweater and I just want to get on the ice and play,” said Nugent-Hopkins, sporting a blue and orange No. 93 Edmonton Oilers home jersey.
The 18-year-old centre has spent a considerable amount of time in the gym since being selected with the No. 1 pick at the Xcel Energy Center in Minnesota.
Nugent-Hopkins estimates that he’s added 12 pounds to his six-foot frame over the summer and now weighs in at about 177 pounds. It was done with an eye on cracking the Oilers roster out of training camp.
“Hopefully that will help me,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “I’m not too focused on my weight right now, I’m just going to focus on how well I play and just playing as good as I can. Obviously, the weight was a little bit of an issue so I tried to address it as much as I could.”
The only No. 1 pick who didn’t jump straight to the NHL since the lockout was defenceman Erik Johnson, who spent a season at the University of Minnesota rather than join the St. Louis Blues in 2006. Overall, 11 of the 18 players taken in the top three spots between 2005 and 2010 went directly to the NHL.
It was no coincidence that Nugent-Hopkins, Landeskog and Huberdeau were grouped together Tuesday at the NHLPA’s rookie showcase, an event where 26 prospects took the ice and posed for photos that will be used on their first NHL trading cards.
They’ve been fielding questions about whether they were ready to play in the NHL right away since before the draft. The focus on them will only intensify in the coming weeks during rookie tournaments and their first training camps.
“It’s something that comes along with (being a top pick),” said Landeskog, who sported a No. 92 Colorado Avalanche jersey. “I see pressure as a positive thing. I want high expectations (placed on) myself. That’s why I play this game—I want to get better every day.”
He’ll travel to Denver on Wednesday and plans to pick the brain of teammate Matt Duchene, who was selected third in the 2009 draft and joined the Avalanche the following season.
Many believe Landeskog is in the best position among this year’s draft class to earn a job because he’s physically mature and trying to crack the roster of a rebuilding team. He’s heard that talk and admits to feeling anxious about what lies ahead in the coming weeks.
“To be honest with you, a little bit,” said Landeskog. “I’d be lying if I said something else. Of course, there’s some nerves that comes along with going to your first training camp and that kind of stuff. A little bit nervous about that, a little bit nervous about meeting the new players.
“But at the same time, I’d say that I’m more excited about it than nervous.”
The Florida Panthers selected Huberdeau with the third pick just a few weeks after he lifted the Memorial Cup with the Saint John Sea Dogs. Business considerations may ultimately determine whether he earns a NHL job this season—he’s yet to sign an entry-level contract—and the 18-year-old centre is taking a wait and see approach to training camp.
“My goal is to play this year, but I don’t know yet if I’m ready,” said Huberdeau, who wore a No. 11 Panthers sweater. “I’ve never played against NHL players. We’ll see out there.
“If I’m ready, for sure, I want to do the job right now.”
If any of the three fail to crack a NHL roster in the fall, they’ll be returned to their junior team for another year of seasoning.
Even though it’s unusual for a No. 1 pick to go back, Nugent-Hopkins has mentally prepared himself for that possibility.
“I’ve thought of that a little bit,” he said. “If it does happen, I’ll be happy to go back to Red Deer, we should have a pretty good team this year again.
“I won’t be disappointed, but I’m going to do everything I can to make the Oilers.”