Clearly, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is destined to take his sensational set of skills to the National Hockey League.
Whether it will be sooner or later is the burning question, particularly with Red Deer Rebels fans.
The Rebels’ star centre will almost certainly be a top-three pick — and quite possibly the No. 1 selection — in June’s NHL entry draft at the Xcel Energy Centre in St. Paul, Minn. Obviously, Nugent-Hopkins would prefer to take his act to the big stage next fall, and that is a definite possibility, but he wouldn’t be down in the dumps if he’s back in Red Deer for more seasoning.
On the contrary . . .
“For me, someone who’s not the biggest guy, another year (of major junior hockey) for more development would probably be a good idea,” he said earlier this week. “But it’s up to the team that takes me. I’d love to come back here, for sure.”
Nugent-Hopkins, as he himself suggested, is somewhat underweight for a player hoping to make the NHL grade in six months time. He currently carries 164 pounds on his six-foot frame, and considering he’s willing to wade into the heavy-traffic areas, he might have to bulk up in order to earn full-time employment with the Edmonton Oilers, Colorado Avalanche or Florida Panthers next fall.
Not surprisingly, he’ll be hitting the weight room between now and the start of next season.
“I’m going to hopefully put on a lot of muscle, some weight, and hopefully get NHL-ready,” said the 18-year-old Burnaby, B.C., native. “If I prepare myself over the summer and get my body ready to take the next jump, that’s a possibility.”
Rebels head coach/vice-president Jesse Wallin doesn’t see the sense in rushing 18-year-old prospects — no matter their skill level — into the NHL.
“Of course I’d love to see him back here,” said the Rebels bench boss. “Regardless of where he’s at and whether he can play at the NHL level, that’s going to be determined when he gets there. It’s going to depend on a lot of things . . . the situation with the team that drafts him and if he gets bigger and stronger over the summer.
“In terms of his ability, he’s probably ready now, but it’s a big step to go up and play against men. I have no doubt in my mind that he would benefit greatly by coming back here and I can say that about any 18-year-old player.”
Wallin speaks from experience when talking about the steep steps that a player must climb when moving from the junior to the professional ranks. The former Rebels captain was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 1996 and turned pro two years later.
“Having gone through the process myself in the American Hockey League and the NHL . . . it’s a different life up there and you have to grow up real fast,” he said. “The short period of time you play junior hockey is a short span of your life and even of your overall hockey career. For an 18- or 19 -year-old kid to come back and play junior and continue to develop . . . I just don’t see the rush in pushing him to that (NHL) level.”