EDMONTON – There was little doubt Taylor Hall would make the team coming out of training camp last year, but Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ place on the team is far from certain this season.
While there was little doubt Hall, the dynamic two-time Memorial Cup MVP from Windsor selected first overall in the 2010 Entry Draft, was destined to start last season in Edmonton, the hype and hoopla around Nugent-Hopkins is considerably more muted as 2011 training camp opens.
The answer as to where Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall pick in the 2011 Entry Draft, will start this season will be played out in the next several weeks.
“This is what I want to do and I definitely feel like I’m ready,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who skated at centre between Ryan Smyth and Jordan Eberle Saturday. “When I saw I was on a line with those two, I was pretty surprised, but I’m very excited, for sure.”
Nugent-Hopkins, 18, who recorded 106 points in 69 games with the Red Deer Rebels last season, is trying to crack the roster of a rebuilding Oilers under different circumstances than first-rounders Hall, Eberle (22nd in 2008) and Paajarvi (10th in 2009) did a year ago.
The opportunity to provide a jolt to the fan base aside, the Oilers had a handful roster spots open a year ago. Going into this camp, there might be one opening at forward after the acquisitions of Smyth, Ben Eager, Eric Belanger and Darcy Hordichuk this off-season.
“It’s good to get out there with the veterans and skate with them finally,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who admitted to being nervous on the eve of camp starting.
“A little bit, yes. I’ve been waiting for this for quite awhile now. Excited, nervous, all those kinds of emotions.”
From the moment the Oilers selected Nugent-Hopkins at the Xcel Energy Centre in Minnesota last June, GM Steve Tambellini has been consistent in tempering expectations. After watching morning sessions at Rexall Place Saturday, Tambellini reiterated that position.
“Ryan and I have spoken numerous times,” Tambellini said. “I’ve told him that if he plays for the Oilers this year, great. If he doesn’t and he plays for us next year, still great.
“There’s no rush with him. It’s not as though we need to insert another young person into the line-up right now. Having said that, I know his objective and his goal is to make the hockey club. That’s what it should be. I told him, ‘Relax. All we want to see is just Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. That’s it. Be yourself, have a great training camp and let’s just see where it falls out.'”
When it comes to first overall draft picks, the vast majority of prospects at least start the following season with the team that took them. The last pick not to do so was Chris Phillips with the Ottawa Senators in 1996.
“A player like Ryan, he has unique qualities to his game as far as vision and just his overall puck skills and ability to evade in tight situations,” Tambellini said.
“I’m making myself and the coaching staff not try to go too far, too soon with him. Let’s just let him play. Let him play games and see what he feels like with NHL players, NHL strength, NHL speed. Then, we can make a good decision.”
Hall thrived during his rookie season when faced with the glare of the spotlight Nugent-Hopkins is facing now. Of course, Hall had Eberle and Paajarvi with him as a buffer.
“He seems pretty mild-mannered and calm,” said Hall, who went out for dinner with Nugent-Hopkins Friday.
“I think he understands if he comes in and can be a puck-mover, play a smart game and show he can play centre at the NHL level, he’s going to be fine. Just the media and all the pressure, that will take care of itself.”
With considerable veteran depth at centre, including Sam Gagner, captain Shawn Horcoff, Belanger and Gilbert Brule, the Oilers don’t need to force the issue.
“That’s just from our team kind of evolving and the depth we have,” Hall said. “I think that’s a good thing. It forces competition.
“They’re definitely going to give him every shot they can. When they say patience, it doesn’t mean they won’t play the heck out of him in exhibition games, test what he’s got, see how he holds up. It’s really up to him.”
That’s all Nugent-Hopkins expects.
“The way that he (Tambellini) left it is it’s in my hands now,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “All I can do is go out and play my best hockey.”