EDMONTON – Draft pedigree aside, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are as different as can be on and off the ice. They are a hockey version of the Odd Couple, a tandem at the core of the rebuild being undertaken by the Edmonton Oilers.
Hall, a two-time Memorial Cup champion and MVP with the Windsor Spitfires selected first overall by Edmonton in 2010, is a dynamic winger with a nose for the net. The 19-year-old scored 22 goals as an NHL rookie and brought fans at Rexall Place to their feet more often than that.
Hall is confident, outgoing and comfortable in the spotlight.
Nugent-Hopkins, 18, taken first overall last June after a 106-point season with the Red Deer Rebels, is a silky smooth centre who draws accolades for his on-ice vision and deft passing skills. He beats opponents with brains, not brawn.
Nugent-Hopkins is also soft-spoken and reserved. One game into his NHL career, he’s clearly more at ease doing what he does rather than talking about it.
So far, it looks like a match.
“It’s safe to say I might be a little bit more outgoing,” Hall said. “You’ve got to understand, though, I came here after playing three years of junior. When you move away from home, you grow up a lot faster.
“He only played two. He’s a young 18-year-old. I was turning 19 my first month of pro.”
After showing chemistry together during pre-season, coach Tom Renney played Hall with Nugent-Hopkins on a line with Ales Hemsky in Edmonton’s season-opener against Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Nugent-Hopkins responded with his first NHL goal in his debut on a set-up by Hall on the way to a 2-1 shootout win over the Penguins.
“For the most part, we’re definitely different players,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who led the Oilers in pre-season scoring with six points. “He’s such a great guy to play with. He always gets open.
“He has so much speed. You give him the puck in stride and he’s gone. It’s awesome playing with a guy like that.”
Hall, who didn’t score his first goal until his eighth game last season, came away from Sunday’s win just as impressed with Nugent-Hopkins as a sell-out crowd did.
“He’s always got his head up when he’s got the puck and he’s surveying his options,” Hall said. “You can see him thinking what the best option might be.
“For a winger like me, if I can get enough speed going down that wall, I know that the puck is going to come to me in a really good spot. You see the drop passes, the no-looks. I think we can expect a lot of him.”
While Nugent-Hopkins admitted to being nervous before the game, it didn’t show once the puck dropped.
“I’m naturally a little more laid-back,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “I kind of take things in stride and try to have fun. I’m quiet at first.
“Once I get to know the guys a little bit more, I’ll become more talkative or whatever, but, for the most part, I’m pretty laid-back.”
A year ago, Hall had fellow rookies Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi to share the spotlight. Nugent-Hopkins is on his own. He was the only rookie in the lineup Sunday.
“Hallsy is more speed and grit, more of a bull-type player,” captain Shawn Horcoff said. “He gets wide and you know he’s going to the net with it hard and try to make something happen.
“Nuge wants to get the puck and he wants to bring guys to him. He’s got that deft, little touch. He can find guys open. He’s a great play-maker and a thinker of the game. The puck follows him.”
As for the difference in personalities, Horcoff waited to make sure Hall was within earshot to offer his take.
“We’ll have to see,” Horcoff dead panned. “Hallsy was quiet for a couple of days, then we couldn’t shut him up last year.
“When you first come in, it’s a little bit overwhelming. You’re trying to find your place, trying to find some confidence. You’re excited. Hallsy has taken a big step forward. He’s talking a lot more, and that’s what we want. We want our young guys to have a voice in here.”
Off the ice as on it, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins are a going concern. When the Oilers finished skating Tuesday, they were taken to a photo-shoot as part of a promotion for a car company.
“As far as personalities, he’s opened up a lot more in the last week, even after the last game,” Hall said. “That first game is over and he’s kind of breathed a sigh of relief.
“He’s a nice kid. He’s not going to say anything to the media that’s controversial or anything like that. I can tell he’s matured some just since I met him the first time at the draft.”
The Oilers have eight more games before they have to make a decision on Nugent-Hopkins. If they keep him beyond nine games, they use one year of his entry level contract.
For now, Nugent-Hopkins will line up between Hall at Hemsky, which is as favourable a chance to impress as a rookie could hope for.
“I’m a passer and both those guys have a ton of skill and like to shoot the puck,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “They can both find the spots and get open. Our games kind of complement each other.”