Nugent-Hopkins showed signs of hockey brilliance early



MINNEAPOLIS — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would like to know. So would his stressed-out father and anybody else seeking clarity before the first selection in the NHL entry draft is announced Friday.

And if you think the Burnaby native has a scoop on whether the Edmonton Oilers will ensure the centre becomes the first B.C. born product to top the annual talent selection, think again. Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini has remained mum. It could be Swedish defenceman Adam Larsson, but it’s probably Nugent-Hopkins.

“It would be a little easier, but that’s part of the whole draft process — the anxiety leading up to that moment,” Nugent-Hopkins said Thursday. “It’s all part of the fun and I’ll just wait.”

Fun? Sleepless nights are fun?

“I feel that I’m easygoing, but if you put anybody in this situation, you’re going to be pretty nervous because this is something you dream about as a kid and the day is finally here,” added the star with the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels. “The nerves are going a bit now.”

That’s only natural because the Burnaby Winter Club product has looked anything but nervous on a frozen sheet of ice. He started skating at age two and was playing organized hockey by the time he turned four. He rose quickly through the ranks and grabbed every laurel along the way.

He was B.C. minor hockey player of the year in 2008, first overall pick in the WHL bantam draft and the league’s top rookie in 2009-10.

He scored the only goal and won gold with Canada at the IIHF under-18 world championship, dominated the Top Prospects Game was named the Canadian Hockey League’s top prospect.

Should Nugent-Hopkins surpass Barry Beck and Ryan Walter as prominent B.C. picks — they went second overall in 1977 and 1978 respectively — it wouldn’t surprise Kyle Turris. He played with older brother Adam Nugent-Hopkins at the Burnaby Winter Club and got an early appreciation for the younger sibling.

“I was a referee at a Challenge Cup tournament at 8-Rinks when he was nine or 10 years old and he was always the best player on his team in all aspects,” said the New Westminster, B.C., native, who was selected third overall by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2007. “Ryan competed for pucks, distributed the puck and could shoot and pass.”

What has set Nugent-Hopkins apart from his peers is an uncanny ability to find teammates and avoid contact. That comes with constant questions about his six-foot-one frame that could use a few more pounds — he has added 10 since end of the season and is up to 174 — and how all that can translate to the NHL level.

“The best part is my vision and my side-to-side agility,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “When I go into a corner with a bigger guy, I just try to make a move and get out of there as fast as I can.”

However, the scouts know better. They see Nugent-Hopkins wind up out of his own zone and defenders in full retreat because they don’t want to get beat one-on-one.

They see a guy with his head on a swivel that produced a league-leading 75 assists this season to go with 106 points, fourth best in the WHL. That came from stickhandling pucks and golf balls in the family basement and releasing them without looking at the ground.

“He can dish both right and left, either on his backhand or forehand with that kind of vision,” said B.J. MacDonald of NHL Central Scouting. “He can lay that puck between the skate boot and the skate blade — that’s hard to find.”

It’s also hard to find an 18-year-old kid who gets the game and its history. He wears No. 9 because of an admiration for Paul Kariya and Maurice Richard. He patterns his two-way game after Pavel Datsyuk and his uncanny vision has been compared to Wayne Gretzky.

A lot of pressure for somebody who could be plopped into the Oiler pressure-cooker, but probably needs another WHL season to physically mature. Is he really ready to complement Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi next season?

“I feel like I am,” said Nugent-Hopkins, which of course, is the proper response. “I would love to have that pressure and it’s not bad to have. I always feel like I play better under pressure and I joined a rebuilding team in Red Deer and I really liked that. Edmonton is going through the same thing and I’d love to join a rebuilding team.”

However, Nugent-Hopkins also admitted that going back to the Rebels wouldn’t be the worse scenario. He’ll probably play for Team Canada and coach Don Hay at the IIHF world junior championship in Alberta. That might also make it easier on his dad, Roger, who is also caught up in the draft.

“It’s pretty hard on him — a little stressed by it,” said Nugent-Hopkins.

His dad won’t argue with that because he can’t believe it has all come to this. After all, his kids just enjoyed playing hockey.

“Surreal is the word I guess you use most often because this was never something we planned,” said Roger Nugent-Hopkins. “He was always a really good athlete. He always loved hockey and followed in his brother’s footsteps, so it’s kind of been just a progression. But there was never a thought: ‘Well, one day he’ll play in the NHL.’ I can’t explain it to you. It just sort of evolved. No other way.

“He’s just a good kid. He’s exactly what he seems to be and I’m not just saying that as his dad. He’s really low key. If you ask him about another player, he’ll say: ‘That kid’s good, Dad. He’s tough to play against.’ ”

So is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Vancouver Province

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