EDMONTON – Those who thought Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would be back riding a bus when his first training camp with the Edmonton Oilers concluded had it half right.
Nugent-Hopkins, the first player taken in this year’s NHL draft, found himself on a motor coach with teammates Monday afternoon, but he wasn’t on his way back to the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels.
Instead, the destination was Jasper, Alt., where Nugent-Hopkins will spend four days with the Oilers before he makes his NHL debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Rexall Place Sunday.
How long the ride lasts has yet to be determined.
“To be honest, all I know is I’m going to Jasper,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “That’s all I really know. They haven’t really told me anything, so I’m just going to take it one day at a time.
“I feel confident in the way I’ve been playing in pre-season. I’m happy with the way it’s gone. I’ve had some awesome linemates to work with and stuff. I’m pretty comfortable with the way things have gone.”
Nugent-Hopkins, 18, might yet end up back in junior hockey because Edmonton has roster decisions remaining. The Oilers have a nine-game window in which to look at him without using up a year of his entry-level contract, but he’ll be in the lineup Sunday.
Based on the lines head coach Tom Renney used Monday, that debut could come on the first line between Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky as a reward for leading the Oilers in pre-season scoring with one goal and five assists.
“We all understand the parameters there that he can operate in before we have to make a real concrete decision on the season,” Renney said. “Again, we’ll do it a game at a time, but he’s had a very good camp.
“I’m going to play him. This is about two points now and the guys who can help us do that will play. I fully expect Ryan will be an important contributor to our needs every night.”
While the jump to the NHL is daunting despite the 106 points Nugent-Hopkins had with Red Deer in 2010-11, the six-foot, 170-pound centre has impressed with his vision, hockey sense and ability to get his wingers the puck.
“I remember coming in last year and my pre-season wasn’t as productive as his,” said Hall, the first overall pick in 2010. “You’ve got to give him credit for that. Just meeting him the first time at the draft until now, he’s matured a lot in a short time.
“He’s impressed a lot of us with his work ethic. His passing ability on the ice has been awesome. I didn’t realize how good a passer he was until I played with him that first game. I saw first-hand. He can make plays. And he doesn’t shy away from the gritty stuff.”
Just three years removed from being named minor hockey player of the year for 2008 in B.C., where he won a provincial championship as a peewee with Burnaby in 2005 and bantam titles in 2007 and 2008, it’s been a rapid rise for Nugent-Hopkins, who was taken first overall by Red Deer in the 2008 bantam draft.
“He’s got great skill and great poise with the puck,” captain Shawn Horcoff said. “He’s proven himself to this point.
“As the games get more intense, we’re going to see if he can handle it. I don’t think it’s any secret he’s going to be a great player for us—if not this year then next year and definitely into the future. It’s when, not if.”
When fifth-year centre Sam Gagner returns from an ankle sprain, which is likely in the next week to 10 days, Nugent-Hopkins or Sweden’s Anton Lander, who also made the 23-man roster, are the likeliest candidates to come out of Renney’s lineup. For now, though, he’s in.
“I don’t know if I have any, to be honest with you,” Renney said when asked about specific expectations of Nugent-Hopkins.
“I want to see him play. I want to see more of him. I want to see a line better because he’s on it. I want to see the people around him better because he’s on the ice. Those types of things. So far, he’s been able to do that.
“How it stacks up against NHL rosters that are going after the same two points you are, I don’t know how that affects him. I’m excited about all of this. Certainly, I think I’m keeping it realistic in terms of my expectations for him. I think that’s important.”
Whether it’s one or two games, a nine-game look or the balance of the season, the soft-spoken Nugent-Hopkins isn’t getting ahead of himself as his prepares for Sunday.
“Jumping to the NHL from junior is going to be a lot bigger than anything I’ve ever experienced,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “I definitely have to elevate my game as much as I can.
“I think the most important thing for me is using my hockey sense to my advantage. I’m not the biggest guy or anything, so I have to use what I have to my advantage.”