Already a valuable member of the Edmonton Oilers, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins turned a nine-game audition into a full-time gig.
And so the Red Deer Rebels lost their top offensive player, a phenomenal talent who spent just two years in the Western Hockey League.
As for the potential return of centre Byron Froese — a 43-goal sniper last season — to the Rebels . . . well, it appears that door is closed as well.
“It sure sounds like it,” Rebels GM/head coach Jesse Wallin said Tuesday. “I’ve been in contact with Chicago a few times and they’re happy with him. He hasn’t been producing offensively for them yet and he has sat out some games, but that’s to be expected. He’s a young guy and he’s still finding his way at that level.”
Froese, selected by Chicago in the fourth round of the 2009 NHL entry draft, is currently a member of the Blackhawks’ American League affiliate — the Rockford IceHogs. The 20-year-old has zero points in six games and is a minus-3 player.
“They want to see him take some more offensive chances, but all in all they’re pleased with him,” said Wallin. “They think he’s ready to play pro and at this point it certainly doesn’t appear like he’ll be coming back. There’s always the possibility that things can change, but certainly at this point they have no intentions of sending him back.”
When Froese signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the Blackhawks in June, the chances of seeing him back in a Rebels jersey were reduced to slim, at best.
“And when you’re ready, you’re ready,” said Wallin. “He plays both ends of the rink and I think the biggest adjustment at the pro level — like any level — is earning a coach’s trust and confidence.
“Byron is a very dependable guy. He’s strong on faceoffs, he’s strong in his own end of the rink and he understands the game. In my opinion he’s ready to make that jump (to pro hockey). I’d be shocked if we got him back.”
So far, Froese is pointless in the AHL while 18-year-old Nugent-Hopkins is the Oilers’ leading producer with five goals and 11 points in 11 games and sits 18th overall in NHL scoring.
And yet, as few as six weeks ago the popular notion was that Froese would play for pay before the 175-pound Nugent-Hopkins, who despite his glorious talent would be deemed too frail to skate in the NHL this season.
Instead, the first overall pick in June’s NHL entry draft roared out of the gate and never missed a beat. The first year of his NHL contract kicked in when he appeared in his 10th game last Friday.
“I don’t know what the Oilers’ intentions were going into the season,” said Wallin. “I know they left it open, they certainly didn’t want to him to feel pressured that he had to play there. They were very noncommittal as to what their expectations were, but he played so well that he just refused to give them any option.
“If you had asked me before the season started that he’d have a point a game after 11 games, I probably would have been a little surprised. But I’m not surprised that he’s exceeded their expectations and how well he’s performed up there. He’s a kid who thrives on a challenge and all summer long he heard that he wasn’t going to be strong enough, that he wasn’t going to be ready . . . and he thrives on that kind of thing. He’s a smart player, a special talent and he’s gone in there and done what Hoppy does.”
The Nugent-Hopkins exit marks the second time in three years that the Rebels have lost an underage player to the NHL. Brandon Sutter left the club in 2008 to join the Carolina Hurricanes.
“But at least Brandon was 19 at the time,” said Wallin. “Not many kids play in the NHL at 18, but we’re in the business of developing players and it’s kind of a feather in the cap or the organization to see (Nugent-Hopkins) up there doing so well. We’re proud of that. Our No. 1 goal is to get these kids into pro hockey.”
• Winger Brooks Maxwell, out since Oct. 1 with an upper-body injury, participated in a non-contact practice session Tuesday and could be back in the Rebels lineup by the weekend. Red Deer hosts the Seattle Thunderbirds Friday and are in Cranbrook to face the Kootenay Ice 24 hours later.
Meanwhile, centre Daulton Siwak will be lost to the club for a week to 10 days after sustaining an upper-body injuring during Friday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the visiting Everett Silvertips.