Like many teenagers, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a big fan of video games. When he’s not playing EA Sports NHL 11, where he controls the virtual version of his own Red Deer Rebels of the Western League, he’s bringing the pain in Call of Duty, the uber-popular war series. But few can use the game as a metaphor the way Nugent-Hopkins can. On the ice, he has a sniper’s mentality, unleashing seemingly effortless shots that pick the smallest of openings in a goaltender’s armor. As a playmaker, he uses deception to frag the opponent’s defense and spring teammates for goals.
“I’ve seen so much from him, nothing surprises me anymore,” said Red Deer coach Jesse Wallin. “For him to make the biggest difference, he has to have the puck.”
And when he does, it usually ends up in the back of the net.
“Upside” is a term loaded with the dreams and expectations of every NHL GM and scout. It’s also the reason Nugent-Hopkins is THN’s top-rated prospect for the 2011 draft, according to a panel of scouts. In a climate where elite prospects are expected to jump right into the big leagues and make an impact, Nugent-Hopkins is a different animal.
Sure, ‘The Nuge’ piled up 106 points for the Rebels during the regular season and was a star at the CHL Top Prospects Game, but it’s the potential that scouts see in his future that makes him so tantalizing.
“I don’t think he’s the type of player you draft and put right into the NHL,” said one scout. “It’s his pro potential you want. That upside is so big.”
And it mainly revolves around what the nifty pivot can do with the puck. Shorthand, the answer is everything. The youngster’s creativity and ability to manipulate the puck is light years ahead of his teenaged peers.
“When I have the puck, I think of all my options,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “I’m always looking up, always looking around.”
Visualization plays a big part of the skill as well. Off the ice, Nugent-Hopkins will mess around in his basement, stickhandling and practising plays where he knows where the net is, but won’t actually look at it directly. After all, it’s harder for a goalie to stop what he doesn’t know is coming. In his youth, he attended many hockey schools, including camps specific to stickhandling. The result is a deadly offensive machine, albeit one that is listed at six-foot, 164 pounds. Therein lies the reason Nugent-Hopkins may remain in major junior next season.
“I know I’m not the biggest guy,” he said. “But I know if I want to get to the next level, I’ll have to put on weight.”
To that end, the Burnaby, B.C native’s summer will be filled with steaks, pasta and ribs, under the watchful eye of a personal trainer. And while the NHL is skewing younger and in some ways smaller, there are limits. In Nugent-Hopkins, those who see him going straight to the NHL cite Patrick Kane. Others see a Kyle Turris frame, which would warrant a return to Red Deer. Wallin believes the latter is a better option for every player, not just his own star pupil.
“It’s the right thing for 18-year-olds,” Wallin said. “A junior career is such a short amount of time and there’s a difference between strength and man strength.”
Not that Nugent-Hopkins is a wallflower. In his only fight of the season, he took on Saskatoon’s Lukas Sutter – who outweighs him by 40 pounds and had 17 tilts this year – and more than held his own. He’s also not afraid to bang out there.
“The criticism of him is how fragile he looks,” said the scout, “but he’s thrown some big hits.”
Such is life in the ‘Dub,’ where farm boy strength is abundant and broad shoulders are everywhere. But for Nugent-Hopkins, taking his game to Red Deer (pop. 90,000) meant a change of pace from life in Burnaby, a Vancouver suburb.
“(Burnaby has) a very big city atmosphere and going to Red Deer was really cool for me,” he said.
That Nugent-Hopkins was the top pick in the WHL’s bantam draft also meant he wasn’t going to fly under the radar once he rolled into town. But he is no late-bloomer and in a five-game WHL audition in 2008-09, he racked up six points. He was nearly a point-per-game player last season and put up triple digits as a sophomore. The competitive instinct is obvious.
“If you want to see him at his best, tell him he can’t do something,” Wallin chuckled. “No one has higher expectations than he does for himself. He’s crushed every challenge he’s faced.”
The final challenge will be a full rounding-out of Nugent-Hopkins’ game. Offensive prowess comes easily for many phenoms, but today’s coaches often stress the need to play “all 200 feet” of the rink. Wallin notes his young star has learned to play without the puck during his tenure in Red Deer and defensive play is a consistent activity, not something that can be done on occasion. The reward, of course, is getting the puck back and bulging the other team’s twine.
Earlier in life, Nugent-Hopkins looked up to Ottawa sensation Jason Spezza, but recently has trained his eyes on Sidney Crosby and Pavel Datsyuk, in particular because of the Russian’s two-way game.
“If you know hockey,” Nugent-Hopkins said, “you know how much he does for the Red Wings.”
This summer, one NHL team hopes to be saying the same thing about a future linked to that slick, skinny kid from the Red Deer Rebels.
This article originally appeared in THN’s 2011 Draft Preview.