LEDUC, Alta. — After his last practice as an auxiliary part, a routine Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has endured for a couple of weeks now, Edmonton Oilers teammate Ryan Smyth delivered a couple of sprightly checks.
The club’s star centre will return to the lineup on Monday when the Oilers play host to the New Jersey Devils.
“Yeah, a couple of guys were giving it to me, just to see how it felt,” said Nugent-Hopkins, the centre of attention on Friday.
He travelled with the team to Vancouver, where he expected to take part in the warm-up, just to get back into the routine, then he’ll ready himself for the Devils. The Oilers, 0-1 after an opening day 5-4 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, play the Canucks, also 0-1, on Saturday.
Nugent-Hopkins last played a game on April 19 then underwent surgery four days later to have his left shoulder repaired. The long-range return date was Nov. 1, but he has been taking part in practices for a couple of weeks and past the required medical inspections.
He even flew into Cleveland to see his surgeon earlier this week.
“It’s definitely a little earlier than first thought because they say five to six months, and then it’s usually closer to six. The last month is about getting your strength back and it’s there now,” said the Oilers’ No. 1 2011 draft pick who signed a seven-year, $42-million contract extension last month.
“It’s awesome that I only have to miss a couple of games. The biggest thing is that I’m confident with it right now. I wouldn’t come back if I wasn’t.”
Nugent-Hopkins said again on Friday that he wasn’t fast-tracking his return because Sam Gagner was knocked out of the lineup and into the operating room in pre-season action by Canucks forward Zack Kassian. He said he had reported to training camp hopeful he’d be back soon.
Gagner was left with a broken jaw after Kassian swung his stick into his face during their game Sept. 21. Kassian is still serving a suspension and will not play against the Oilers on Saturday. Gagner has started skating but will not return until the fracture has set.
“It was tough seeing Gags get hurt like that, and obviously, it was a big hit to the team, but as far as I was concerned, I had to make sure I was 100 per cent ready — no matter what,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “It’s definitely a bonus I am coming back early.
“Coming into camp, I wasn’t quite sure when I’d be back because I hadn’t talked to the doctors much. And at the start of camp, my strength wasn’t quite there, so I knew I had to work on that. I got it to where it needed to be.”
Head coach Dallas Eakins has not ruled out the possibility of keeping Taylor Hall at centre, although that debate will continue through the weekend.
Hall will play between Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky against the Canucks, while Mark Arcobello centres David Perron and Nail Yakupov.
Jordan Eberle, who skated with Perron and Arcobello against the Jets, is playing with Boyd Gordon and Jesse Joensuu.
“It’s something we started talking about this morning,” Eakins said. “I’m on the tight rope either way (but) suddenly, it’s a nice problem to have. Arcobello, I thought, had a pretty good game against Winnipeg, so it’s nice to have options when you’re missing such an important piece of your team in Sam Gagner.”
Nugent-Hopkins had said last week that he didn’t want to use the shoulder as an excuse but that he wasn’t playing with confidence and that he could have had a much better season than he did, finishing with four goals and 20 assists in 40 games.
He has set the bar much higher for this campaign.
“I definitely want to make a big jump from last year,” he said. “I made some steps in my defensive game but I definitely thought, offensively, I could have produced more.
“I’m just going to try to get involved physically (on Monday), get a shot on net … I need to get involved in the game right away. I’ve been working on the faceoffs pretty much every day, and it feels strong. That’s a good indicator right there.”
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