Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, sometimes has drawn comparisons to Wayne Gretzky. No one suggests Nugent-Hopkins will have a career like “The Great One.” But some see similarities in his game, specifically an exceptional hockey IQ.
During the NHL lockout, the Edmonton Oilers' 19-year-old center will play in Oklahoma City. The Barons open the American Hockey League season Friday at Lake Erie.
“It would be like Blake Griffin or Sam Bradford coming down to the minors,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “This is unprecedented to have a player playing at this level that will be a perennial All-Star.”
A handful of young NHL players still in three-year, entry-level contracts will play in the AHL during the lockout. But few, if any, are as talented as Nugent-Hopkins, who scored 52 points in 62 games.
The only reason Nugent-Hopkins didn't win the Calder Trophy, the NHL's Rookie of the Year award, was a shoulder injury that sidelined him for 20 games. Some thought he still should have won it.
Possessing creativity and a unique on-ice vision, Nugent-Hopkins showed as an 18-year-old rookie that he will compile a ton of assists for years to come.
“We call it hockey sense,” Nelson said. “That's why Gretzky was so great. He was smarter than everyone on the ice. Ryan is always thinking three or four moves ahead: ‘If I move the puck here it will end up there.' But he's also a good skater and faster than most people think.”
After a dazzling NHL debut, Nugent-Hopkins will play in the minors. The Barons' facilities aren't that much different from NHL arenas. But there will be occasional all-night bus trips. And players lug around their own equipment.
But just two years ago, Nugent-Hopkins was playing junior hockey, where he compiled 75 assists with the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League. He embraces the temporary Oklahoma City detour as an opportunity to work on his game.
“I want to be known as a two-way center, definitely work on my defensive game,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “My faceoff percentage is another area I need to improve. I look at this as a fun adventure, an opportunity to build relationships with guys I'll be playing with.”
One of “those guys” is right winger Jordan Eberle, an NHL All-Star last season. Eberle led the Oilers in goals and has played in the NHL the past two seasons. The two young stars play on Edmonton's top line. They're the foundation for the future on one of the league's youngest teams.
“If you had to pick one skill whether it was speed, shot, quickness I'd say smartness is why Ryan adapted so well and had success early,” Eberle said. “That's why we play so well together. We think the game the same. That's why we had immediate chemistry.”
The big question mark about whether Nugent-Hopkins could make the jump from junior hockey to the NHL was whether his 6-foot, 165-pound frame would hold up against the world's top players. He added 10 pounds the summer before his rookie season and immediately showed he was ready.