EDMONTON – As impressive as he’s been through his first seven NHL games, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hasn’t been told by the Edmonton Oilers to unpack his bags and settle in for the season.
Nugent-Hopkins leads rookies with five goals and seven points, but the 18-year-old centre, taken first overall in this year’s draft, still can’t yet claim a permanent address.
With two games to go before Nugent-Hopkins hits the nine-game threshold that sees the first year of his three-year, entry-level contract kick in, fans are convinced the kid dubbed The Nuge should stick around.
But the Oilers haven’t made a decision, and Nugent-Hopkins says he doesn’t know if he’ll be returning to the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels.
“No. Still nothing,” Nugent-Hopkins said when asked his status after the Oilers skated Monday. “Still just waiting. I’m going to go into tomorrow night and just play and see what happens after that.”
If head coach Tom Renney and Edmonton management have made a decision on their leading scorer going into Tuesday’s game against Vancouver at Rexall Place, they aren’t saying what it is. At least not publicly.
“Have I told him he’s staying? No,” Renney said.
Renney was asked if a decision on Nugent Hopkins will take the full nine games, or if it could come sooner.
“I don’t think we’ve really identified an internal time-line,” Renney said. “We talk about all our players every day and he’s certainly one of the ones we talk about a lot.
“I can tell you that it’s all favourable, you know? The kid’s doing a good job. At the end of the day, and I’ve said many, many times, it’ll be the body of work we’ll look at.
“There are other players who are involved in this process, too, that we have to make decisions, so it’s not just about him. It’s about a number of other players we have to pay attention to in terms of whether or not they’re part of the lineup.”
While Nugent-Hopkins shrugs off the silence, fans haven’t been as quiet. Renney had the faithful buzzing when he cut back the ice time of Nugent-Hopkins and linemates Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle late in a 2-1 loss to Minnesota on Thursday.
The buzz turned into a roar on radio call-in shows Saturday at Renney’s suggestion that Nugent-Hopkins might sit out a game here or there as he sorts out his roster.
“I was surprised by the lack of intellect in as to why that would come about,” Renney said about reaction to his comments. “Why wouldn’t I at least consider, never having said I would, what our team would look like without him in the lineup?
“If you want to know how valuable a guy is, you don’t really know how much you miss someone until you don’t have him any more . . . I was kind of disappointed it grew the legs that it did and people started to draw conclusions he might not play. I never, ever said he wouldn’t play in the next game. I never said that at all.”
Nugent-Hopkins was in the lineup against the New York Rangers on Saturday and bounced back from two games without a point with a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win.
“He’s a point-a-game player,” Hall said. “He’s got five goals. It’s pretty hard to say that’s not NHL calibre.
“He was brought in to produce offence, and he’s done that in spades. That’s what he wanted to do. I’ve said all along that if he came in and did what he did best, and he’s even done more than that, he’d be a capable NHL player this year.”
The Oilers told Hall, selected first overall in the 2010 Draft, he’d be staying before his fifth game last season, a home date against Minnesota. At the time, Hall had just one assist.
“Maybe they think what they’re doing, just keeping him on his heels a little bit, has worked,” Hall said of management’s insistence since draft day they won’t rush Nugent-Hopkins.
“Before the last game, Tom gave him a little bit of a scare there. Jordan and I love playing with him. We don’t want our line to change by any means, but we’ll stand by the team whatever they do because that’s who we play for.
“We all pull for all the best for Ryan. We want him to stay all year. We love playing with him, but we’ll stand by whatever they decide to do.”
Under the current CBA, there are actually two thresholds to consider with Nugent-Hopkins and NHL rookies when it comes to contracts.
If the Oilers play Nugent-Hopkins in 10 games this season, they use the first year of his entry-level contract. The Oilers can, however, return him to Red Deer before he plays 40 games without having this season count as service toward unrestricted free agency.
“I might think about it a little bit,” Nugent-Hopkins admitted. “I don’t really worry about it. I just try to take it day-by-day.
“Right now, I’m here so I’m happy. I’m just doing everything I can to stay here and I’m just going to keep doing that until I get told whether I am or whether I’m not.”
So far, Nugent-Hopkins has made about as strong a case to stay as any rookie on a team that’s finished 30th in back-to-back seasons possibly could.
“I try to just play and have fun,” he said. “I’m having a blast so far. It’s been great. I’m going to just keep taking it day-by-day.”