Ryan Nugent-Hopkins made it look easy.
Gliding across the face-off dot with a defender on him, the first overall pick in this year’s NHL threaded the puck top shelf on goalie Louis Domingue during a scrimmage at the Canadian junior hockey team’s summer camp.
Those moments that seem effortless tip the debate over whether the 18-year-old is ready to play for the Edmonton Oilers this season towards to the “yes” side.
The skills and sense are all there. But the power and strength to compete for 82 regular-season games against men with far more years on him is the question mark.
“He obviously would be able to play and compete at the NHL level,” said Kevin Lowe, the Oilers president of hockey operations. “It’s a question of whether he has enough strength to absorb the checking and not get hurt.
“But for players like him, with his kind of smarts, they tend to almost have a sixth sense as far as preservation. The power part is a little over-stated.”
Nugent-Hopkins is so accustomed to taking questions about his weight, he volunteered before asked that he’d gained a few pounds this summer.
For the record, the six-foot centre is 175 pounds, which is about 10 more than he was in April at the end of his season with the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels.
“I’m a little bit stronger on the puck and that’s really helping me out,” Nugent-Hopkins said Friday at Rexall Place. “I feel like my skating is a little bit more powerful now.”
Even so, Nugent-Hopkins appears slender next to camp linemate Devante Smith-Pelly, who is a year older and, at about 30 pounds heavier, looks ready to play for Anaheim this season.
“He’s small, but he’s just so shifty,” Smith-Pelly said of his linemate. “He’s pretty strong on his skates although he is a little bit skinny. I don’t think that’s going to hold him back at all. He’s that good at that size.”
Nugent-Hopkins moves the puck quickly in tight spaces. He can seem off-balance, but then suddenly cut hard to the net. Jaden Schwartz, his other winger and his roommate at this camp, had a up-close view on that goal after deftly dishing the puck to him.
“He’s an unbelievable player and it’s pretty easy to play with him,” Schwartz said. “He sees the ice so well and always in the right position. He’s a great passer.”
Last year’s No. 1 pick Taylor Hall played for the Oilers at 18. Hall was heavier and more physically mature than Nugent-Hopkins heading into training camp. Hall had also played in a world junior championship and two Memorial Cups by then, which are experiences Nugent-Hopkins lacks at this point.
Nugent-Hopkins was released from the junior team’s selection camp last December. So far, the Burnaby, B.C., native has been a standout at summer camp.
The 47 players invited to summer camp had morning skates Friday before heading to CFB Edmonton for team-building exercises in the afternoon. An intra-squad game is scheduled for Saturday evening at Rexall Place, followed by another in Fort McMurray on Sunday to conclude camp.
Prince George Cougars forward Brett Connolly did not skate Friday. He needed assistance to get off the ice in the previous evening’s scrimmage. Canadian head coach Don Hay expected Connolly to get back on the ice Saturday.
The Oilers are following the same strategy with their prized prospect this year as they did with Hall in 2010, according to Lowe. Hall won his spot on the Oilers and Nugent-Hopkins has to do the same.
“Taylor clearly proved he belonged in the National Hockey League and not only belonged, but did quite well,” Lowe said. “We’ll see how Ryan does, start off in Penticton at the rookie camp, obviously make it to the main camp and play some exhibitions and then make our decision at that point.”
Lowe says the club won’t hesitate to send Nugent-Hopkins back to the Rebels if he’s not ready for the pros. That would buck a trend as the last four No. 1 picks – Hall, John Tavares, Steve Stamkos and Patrick Kane – all made their NHL teams the same year they were drafted.
Oilers forwards Hall, Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi are all 21 or under. Nugent-Hopkins feels having players close to him in age in the dressing room could smooth his transition to the pros.
“I think it would be a little bit more of an easier adjustment for me because all the young guys would be able to relate to me and I’d be able to relate to them,” he said. “I’d love to join them this year, but if it doesn’t happen for me, I’ll be back in junior.”
Nugent-Hopkins compiled 31 goals and 75 assists for the Red Deer last season.
Hockey Canada head scout Kevin Prendergast pegs the chances of Nugent-Hopkins playing for the Oilers this season at better than 50 per cent, despite the player’s lanky frame.
“The last skinny centre Edmonton had was pretty good,” Prendergast said, referring to Wayne Gretzky. “It’s not going to affect this kid.”
The celebrity that accompanies the NHL’s first-round pick in the city that drafted him was evident the moment Nugent-Hopkins arrived at the Edmonton International Airport for summer camp. While collecting his bags, he was stopped a few times by people wanting their picture with him.
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