KENNEWICK, Wash. — Goals have been hard to come by for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins this season, but the Red Deer Rebels forward isn’t worried.
One of the top prospects for next summer’s NHL draft knows he’s doing plenty to help his team.
“I definitely think I’m a playmaker,” Nugent-Hopkins said in a recent interview. “In bantam and midget, I scored a lot more than I am now. Goals are a little harder for me this year, so getting an assist is just as good for me. A goal for the team is the same whether I get it or someone else does.”
The 17-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., has five goals and 24 assists in 19 games this season to lead the Western Hockey League’s Rebels in points. But prior to the weekend, he hadn’t scored a goal since Sept. 29. He ended the slump Saturday against Tri-City, scoring a pair of power-play goals.
“It’s good just for his sake to get the piano off his back,” said Red Deer coach Jesse Wallin. “He’s played well and had opportunities — we knew it was just a matter of time.”
It’s a big year for Nugent-Hopkins, who is eligible for the 2011 NHL draft. In the pre-season rankings, the six-foot, 165-pound centre was rated sixth overall and second in the WHL behind Vancouver Giants defenceman David Musil.
“It’s exciting,” Nugent-Hopkins said of his ranking. “I don’t let it affect my game, I try to use it as motivation to go as high as I can in the draft. It’s kind of surreal, to be honest.”
E.J. McGuire, the director of NHL Central Scouting, likes what he sees in Nugent-Hopkins and isn’t concerned about his lack of goals.
“In my view, he is magic,” McGuire said from the NHL offices in Toronto. “He sees the ice well. He’s only got five goals this year, but that attests to his vision as a set-up man. He’s a power-play quarterback and has the potential of being a star player. He’s a top five pick — maybe top three.”
The Rebels took Nugent-Hopkins with the first overall pick in the 2008 WHL bantam draft. Last year, he had 24 goals and 41 assists in 67 games for the Rebels en route to being named the WHL Rookie of the Year.
Byron Froese, who spent two years in Everett before being traded to the Rebels, works the power play with Nugent-Hopkins and has benefited from his play — eight of his 10 goals have come with a man advantage.
“He is that good,” said Froese, a fourth-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009. “He has a lot of skill. It’s a good experience for me to play with someone of his talent, and it’s a lot of fun.”
The Rebels (12-6-1-0) are at the end of their swing through the U.S. Division. They are 2-2 on their trip, which will finish Tuesday in Everett.
While Nugent-Hopkins leads the Rebels in points, Andrej Kudrna leads the team with 13 goals while Froese has 10. The trio has helped bring Red Deer back to the forefront of the WHL after finishing at the bottom of the Central Division during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons and making a quick exit from the playoffs last year.
“I knew they were at the bottom for a few years when they drafted me,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “But I knew they had a great coaching staff under Brent Sutter. They are a first-class organization and I was excited to go there.”
And the Rebels were happy to bring him into the fold.
“His ability level is rare,” Wallin said. “He is a special kid in a sense that with his ability he doesn’t have the attitude that can go along with it. He works hard, he is very grounded and team oriented. I don’t think he is concerned about the accolades.”
But they still keep coming.
Nugent-Hopkins was selected to play for the WHL team in next week’s Subway Series against Russia. He will play in the first game in Kamloops on Nov. 17.
He also represented Canada at the under-18 2010 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament in the Czech Republic in August. He scored the winner in a 1-0 victory over the United States in the gold-medal game.
“Winning a gold medal was a dream of mine, and playing against the United States in the gold-medal game and beating them was incredible,” he said. “I scored early in the game and I didn’t really think a whole lot of it then. It turned out good in the end.”