Injuries to forwards Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner made it easy for the Oilers to give top prospect Ryan Nugent-Hopkins plenty of ice time in October.
The first overall draft pick put on a show, scoring four goals (including a memorable hat trick) and adding an assist in first six games. Now as the Oilers get healthier, the team must decide whether to keep in the every day lineup or send him back to junior hockey so his professional contract clock doesn’t start.
That decision will come after he plays three more games. Coach Tom Renney may buy some evaluation time by moving him in and out of the lineup.
“Obviously I don’t want to miss any games. I just want to keep playing,” Nugent-Hopkins told the Edmonton Sun. “If it happens, it happens. I just want to stay in the lineup as long as I can.
On the plus side, the wiry Nugent-Hopkins has made some dazzling plays with fellow top prospects Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. On the down side, he isn’t strong on face-offs and Edmonton’s management wonders how he will hold up on the defensive end.
“It’s important to know that we’re coaching to win, too,” Renney told the Sun. “As much as those three kids with Ryan can help generate offence, it’s also a case of what you take, but what you leave.”
Everybody agrees that Nugent-Hopkins will have to become much stronger to reach his full potential. His current lack of strength is most evident on draws.
“I’m not really concerned about Ryan’s ability in the face-off circle yet,” said Renney. “It’s a strength move, too. It’s not just a skill move, and I can’t get him stronger during a season. We can certainly continue to work on the art of the face-off, but it’s a strength move, too, so we have to look at some other strategies as he works on his strength acquisitions over the summers. It’ll come.”