The way Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was stroking his face, it’s a good thing the Edmonton Oilers don’t figure on an extended playoff run anytime soon.
“I don’t shave around here,” he said, rubbing his cheeks and his chin. Then moving to the upper lip, he said, “I have to shave here a couple of days a week, but not much more than that.”
Oh, to be young and underdeveloped. The future of the Oilers looks, well, rather slight at the moment. Nugent-Hopkins reported he has gained 10 pounds since his season with the Red Deer Rebels ended to put him up to 175 and hopes to pack on five more before 2011-12 starts. He can bench press his own weight five times, a feat he accomplished at the recent NHL draft combine.
“They’re really strict at the combine, they make you bring the bar right down to your chest,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “I did seven, but they took two away from me.”
Again, lucky for him the Oilers aren’t asking the first overall pick in the 2011 draft to carry the franchise. Lots of time and, presumably, lots of other help on that front. In fact, Nugent-Hopkins might not even be playing for the Oilers next season and neither side sees any point in rushing the matter. If Nugent-Hopkins goes back to junior, he’ll have a chance to play for a Memorial Cup, play in the world juniors and be a truly dominant player in the Western League.
No player has ever been ruined by being brought along slowly, but the NHL’s scrap heap is piled with guys who were asked to bear too much responsibility and pressure early in their careers.
“We’ll do the right thing with Ryan,” said Oilers GM Steve Tambellini. “If Ryan presents himself as a dominant player, then we’ll have a decision to make. But this is a long-term acquisition.”
Within 48 hours at this year’s draft, the Oilers had acquired two Ryans - Nugent-Hopkins and Smyth - and the two couldn’t be more dissimilar. Nugent-Hopkins is a slick-skating center who has been compared to everyone from Pavel Datsyuk to Steve Yzerman to Wayne Gretzky - who incidentally called Nugent-Hopkins after he was drafted to wish him good luck and to tell him he would love playing in Edmonton. Smyth, on the other hand, is a mullet-wearing, grizzled veteran who labors in his skating, but always seems to find a way to get to the net. Smyth has 17 more years of life experience on Nugent-Hopkins, while the kid has a whole bunch more teeth than Smyth does, but what they do have in common is they both desperately wanted to be Oilers.
It was four years ago a bawling Smyth was saying goodbye to Edmonton over a $100,000 wedge between him and then-GM Kevin Lowe. It was a matter of principle then. The Oilers had already taken care of several lesser players than Smyth with long-term contracts for ridiculous money, but seemed to have a case of the shorts when their most loyal and dedicated player lined up for his deal. Smyth should have never left. And Nugent-Hopkins was destined to play for the Oilers someday.
“He really wanted to go No. 1,” said Nugent-Hopkins’ father, Roger. “But more importantly, he wanted to go to Edmonton. Oh God, yeah. He thought that would be a really great team with (Taylor) Hall and (Jordan) Eberle and (Magnus) Paajarvi and all the kids that are coming, he thought that would just be a fabulous place to grow up as a hockey player.”
There are a number of ways to build a franchise, but there’s little doubt the Oilers are taking the tried and true bad-to-be-good method. It’s not intentional, by the way. It’s simply there’s been a lot of scorched earth to replace over the past couple of years. Tambellini speaks with conviction when he says he expects the Oilers to contend for a playoff spot this season because he probably believes it, but there are few who would be surprised if the Oilers are picking No. 1 overall next year for the third in a row - or at the very least be sitting in the front row of tables at the draft.
The problem with the Oilers is they don’t have any tweeners. They have young, promising talent and a bunch of guys suited for the third and fourth lines, but not much in the way of players who can perform with consistency for 82 games. That’s where the 35-year-old Smyth will be such an enormous help, both in terms of performance and showing the young players the way.
The way Tambellini sees it, the Oilers are in Year 2 of their total makeover after eschewing the philosophy of quick fixes. Year 1 was spent moving bodies out and now comes the phase where they continue to acquire young players and start developing some of the ones they already have in the minors. The Oilers used their second first round pick, the 19th overall selection acquired from the Los Angeles Kings for Dustin Penner, to take hulking Swedish defenseman Oscar Klefbom.
“We’re trying to acquire assets where we can build something that can win (extended pause) one day,” Tambellini said. “These are the years where we have to acquire elite talent. We’re sticking with it. It’s going to work.”
If it’s going to work, Nugent-Hopkins will be a big part of it. The young man has always been an elite player, but his route to the NHL was an unusual one. Eight years ago, his father learned he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Instead of telling their children, his parents decided to keep the diagnosis from them for a couple of years because they didn’t think Ryan and his older brother could handle it. It was right around then Nugent-Hopkins’ parents split up and when Nugent-Hopkins was 12, his parents had to pull him out of hockey for a season because they couldn’t afford the costs of playing AAA in Burnaby. Instead, Nugent-Hopkins did skill development and light workouts in the gym.
“I think it actually benefitted him in the long run,” Roger said. “It got him away from the grind and I think that was a positive thing.”
But it wasn’t long before Nugent-Hopkins had re-established himself as one of the top young players in B.C. The skills were always there and had been enhanced over the years, but one thing that set him apart was his quiet competitiveness.
“We’d go play Pepper and his brother would pack it in after a while,” Roger said, “but he’d be between two trees 20 feet apart and I’d try to get the ball by him on the ground or in the air and we’d do that for two hours. He has always been athletic and competitive. But he has never been competitive in an overt way.”
At this stage, the Oilers will take their competitiveness any way it wants to present itself. Because they know it comes with youthful vigor and, if nothing else, they have all kinds of that on the way.
This article also appeared in the August 2011 edition of The Hockey News.