ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Baby-faced centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has followed Taylor Hall as the Edmonton Oilers’ next brick in their rebuild.
Nugent-Hopkins was the first name called on Day 1 of the NHL entry draft at the Xcel Energy Center a year after the Oilers called winger Hall to the stage with the No. 1 selection.
The Oilers listened to some entreaties from the Florida Panthers, who urged them to take centre Stephen Weiss or winger David Booth and move back to the No. 3 pick to select Swedish defenceman Adam Larsson or Saint John Sea Dogs forward Jonathan Huberdeau, but the pitches fell on deaf ears
Nugent-Hopkins weighs just 174 pounds, but he’s a gigantic talent.
He has had plenty written about him in Edmonton after playing junior for the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels, but when general manager Steve Tambellini called out his name on Friday, his heart still skipped a beat.
“I don’t know what was going through my head. I was just so happy to hear my name,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who had Hall on stage with him as the Oilers welcome their latest pick into the fold.
“Taylor just told me to enjoy the whole experience even as nervous as you are.”
“I would hope this is the last year we pick first,” said Hall. “Twice in a row is enough.”
Nugent-Hopkins has been at Rexall Place plenty of times this past winter and spring, playing against the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings in the regular season and playoffs.
“Coming into Edmonton as much as I did, I’ve seen the pictures of the old teams. To join a franchise like the Oilers ... that’s a really good feeling.”
Nugent-Hopkins, who said he managed a good eight hours of sleep the night before the draft, has no problems going to a Canadian team where the heat will be on him more than if he’d been selected by the Panthers or Colorado Avalanche.
“I’ve thought about the pressure of playing in Canada, but I love that. That’s not bad pressure to me. I always feel I play better under pressure,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who had 106 points in 69 games for the Rebels last season.
Hockey Canada chief scout Kevin Prendergast said Nugent-Hopkins was a cut above every other youngster in this draft field.
“He really is special. There is an aura about him,” said Prendergast, who hopes to have Nugent-Hopkins on Canada’s world junior team at Rexall Place if he doesn’t make the Oilers in 2011-12.
“Who does he play like? I hate to say it, but it’s Gretzky. He’s not big, they say he’s not that fast, but he’ll play in traffic. The puck follows him around and if he loses it, he goes and gets it back. He’s got the Detroit (Red Wings) mentality there.”
Former Calgary Flames GM Craig Button, now working for the NHL Network, is a huge fan.
“There’s Nugent-Hopkins as a first-line centre, then there’s everybody else in this draft,” said Button, who dismisses the talk that Nugent-Hopkins could find himself facing players looking to crush him.
“Yeah, the Oilers used to have another player you couldn’t hit. I used to laugh when people said you weren’t allowed to hit Gretzky. The defencemen I talked to say said they tried, but they never do it. Same with Nugent-Hopkins.”
“We never had a chance of getting Ryan and I’d be going to Red Deer to look at other people,” said San Jose Sharks scout Brian Gross, “but I’d end up only watching him. He’s a player you can build a franchise around. I kidded his agent that he’s going to put a Mercedes in his driveway for a long time.”
Nugent-Hopkins is different and that’s taking nothing away from the power of No. 2 pick Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado) or No. 3 Huberdeau (Florida).
“I’ve had Ryan at my three-on-three (summer) camp. He’s slick. He’s good,” said Perry Pearn, the Montreal Canadiens assistant coach.
Starting at square one with a young, rebuilding club is exactly what Nugent-Hopkins would like.
“I joined a rebuilding Red Deer team last season and I really liked what we accomplished there in my two years. Edmonton’s going through the same thing, only in the NHL. The ultimate goal is to win a Stanley Cup and doing it in a rebuild ... I’d like that,” he said.
And if he has to go back to junior?
“That wouldn’t disappoint me, playing again in Red Deer. Another year in junior wouldn’t hurt me,” he said.
Nugent-Hopkins knows he has to put some meat on his frame, but he doesn’t want to bulk up too much.
“My side-to-side agility as always helped me because I know I’m not the biggest guy,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “When I go into the corner with a bigger guy, I try and get the puck and get out of there as fast as I can.”
With the pick acquired from the Los Angeles Kings in the Dustin Penner trade, the Oilers selected Oscar Klefbom from Farjestad of the Swedish Elite League. He captained Sweden to a silver medal at the 2011 under-18 world championship.
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