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.
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.”