There was, by all accounts, plenty of observers who were convinced that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, despite his astounding on-ice attributes, would be back with the Red Deer Rebels last season.
Many of these doubters had watched Nugent-Hopkins weave his magic with the Rebels, yet were convinced that the first player selected in the 2011 NHL entry draft was incapable of immediately moving to the bigs.
The argument revolved around the slight build of the superb centre and the over-riding opinion was that as an 18-year-old, he would be a mere sapling among the NHL redwoods; therefore he needed at least one more winter of major junior seasoning to properly prepare for full-time employment with the Edmonton Oilers.
And so, as Nugent-Hopkins attended the Oilers summer rookie camp and then the main gathering in September, the popular consensus was that he would return to Red Deer within a month.
Well, we all know how that turned out.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect going into camp, but obviously my goal was to make the team (Oilers),” Nugent-Hopkins said this week at the Red Deer Golf and Country Club, where he participated in the Love of Children Classic charity tournament.
“The guys really made me feel comfortable right away and I think the exhibition games helped out a ton, getting a feel for what it’s like in a pro atmosphere. Once I got to the regular season I felt comfortable, and as the games went on I felt even more comfortable.”
No kidding. Nugent-Hopkins was outstanding in preseason play and carried that performance into the regular season, forcing the Oilers to retain his services on a permanent basis.
When it was all said and done, ‘RNH’ had scored 18 goals and assisted on 34 others for 52 points, despite missing 20 games due to injuries.
Nugent-Hopkins gained 10 pounds last summer and currently checks in at six-foot-one and 175 pounds, the latter being a number he’ll continue to work on.
“I do need to get a little thicker, but I’ve put on some weight and I hope it’s the right weight,” he said.
“I’m just going to continue working this summer to get bigger and stronger.
“It’s not just about gaining weight, but getting a lot stronger.”
His slender frame didn’t prevent him from starring in the WHL at the ages of 16 and 17, despite his frequent tendency for initiating body contact.
And through the majority of his NHL rookie campaign, his ability to avoid collisions worked to his advantage.
“I try to see what’s coming, I try to not get hit too much,” he said.
“Obviously, getting hit wears your body down and I didn’t want to that to happen in my first year. The guys that I play with are quick and they really move the puck well, so that helps out that way.”
After finishing dead last in the 30-team NHL in 2010-11, the Oilers were 12 points better last season but placed ahead of just one team — the Columbus Blue Jackets.
It was, again, a disappointing winter, but the Oilers’ cupboard is stocked with offensive talent so the future looks bright, although not beholding of any promises.
“We definitely feel like we made some strides, that we made some progress this past season,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “Personally, I learned a lot. We have a bunch of young guys on the team, so the next couple of years should be very exciting and I can’t wait to get going again.”
The Oilers will start the 2012-13 season with a new coach at the helm following the recent dismissal of Tom Renney. The club has yet to name a replacement.
“I really like Tom, he’s a great guy, but that’s going to be cool — seeing who the new coach is,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “It will be cool to see what happens and I’m sure whoever is selected will be the right fit.”
Nugent-Hopkins is one of three finalists — Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche and Adam Henrique of the New Jersey Devils are the others — for the NHL rookie of the year award, which will be presented June 20 in Las Vegas. Winning the Calder Trophy, he admitted, would be a dream come true.
“It would definitely be a huge honour, something I’d like to achieve,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “Just being nominated is a big honour for me.”