Nugent-Hopkins became only the second player in 20 years to be named Rookie of the Month in the first two months of his career. He scored a hat trick in his third NHL game. He recorded a record-tying five assists against Chicago.
For the first month, he was among the top 10 scorers in the league. At Christmas, he was still among the top 20 scorers before the shoulder injury. Many project he'll be among the league's top scorers for years to come.
“He has such an incredible intelligence for the game,” said Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini. “You could equate it to a quarterback who can see everything, read defenses, anticipate what's going to happen and adjust.”
Nugent-Hopkins' exceptional hockey IQ is most evident on power plays. Nearly half of his points and 60 percent of his 34 assists were when the Oilers had a man advantage. On the power play Nugent-Hopkins plays the “half wall” position.
“Everything starts with him,” Nelson said. “He's able to design plays where he can think two or three passes ahead by moving the puck to a certain person at a certain time. He's smarter than a lot of people. That's the big thing.”
Nugent-Hopkins grew up in Burnaby, a Vancouver suburb. Tambellini said the young star is as impressive off the ice as he is with a stick in his hand, traits he discovered before the draft when he invited Nugent-Hopkins to his house for dinner.
“It wasn't to talk hockey but just a chance to get to know him,” Tambellini said. “He's the most genuine, polite, humble young man you'll meet. He may look like he's still 17 but on the ice ...”
On the ice, Nugent-Hopkins' IQ reminds some of Gretzky, who helped lead Edmonton to four Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1988.
“I just brush it off. He's one of a kind, the best to ever play,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Even if there are some little similarities we're very different players. It's very humbling to hear something like that. You really can't compare anyone to him.”
Gretzky, though, called him the day the Oilers selected him No. 1 overall.
“That was really cool,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “He congratulated me and welcomed me to a great organization. He told me to take pride in wearing the jersey. That really stuck with me, something I tried to do all last year and will keep trying to do throughout my career.
“Hopefully down here in OKC we can get off to a good start and when the season starts in Edmonton do the same.”