If Ryan Nugent-Hopkins keeps this up, he'll find himself in some pretty exclusive company.
Not only is the 18-year-old centre leading the Edmonton Oilers in scoring, he's on pace to average more than a point per game — something only Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have accomplished as rookies since the lockout.
In retrospect, it seems silly there was even a debate about where he would play this season.
“Obviously, his intelligence is helping him find ways to adapt to a different level,” Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini said in an interview Wednesday.
Nugent-Hopkins has quickly put to rest all of the concerns about his size that were raised when Edmonton picked him first overall at the draft in June. The common thought then was that he would need more time with the WHL's Red Deer Rebels to fill out his slender six-foot-one frame.
The Oilers wisely decided to be patient and let Nugent-Hopkins make the decision for them. The organization tempered expectations heading into training camp and allowed the rookie to play nine regular-season games before choosing to keep him in the NHL.
“We purposely didn't allow our coaching staff and scouting staff to really get down to discussions until we completed that process,” said Tambellini. “With Ryan, we just said `Be yourself, nothing more nothing less. Just be yourself out there.’
“Obviously, he's played very well for us so far.”
Nugent-Hopkins has been particularly hot of late, racking up nine points in the last three games thanks in large part to a five-assist performance against Chicago over the weekend.
Ahead of Friday's game against Minnesota at Xcel Energy Center, the building where he was drafted, Nugent-Hopkins was tied with the rejuvenated Ryan Smyth for the team lead in scoring with 22 points in 21 games. Jordan Eberle was next at 21 points.
There is a fair bit of subtlety to Nugent-Hopkins' game. Not particularly flashy or fast, he possesses great on-ice vision and a knack for getting his linemates the puck. He's the kind of player who can pick up two or three assists in a game without drawing much attention.
And the native of Burnaby, B.C., has quickly become a go-to member of the Oilers, averaging nearly 17 minutes per game.
“You're not going to get the ice time at this level unless the coaches trust you in a lot of different situations,” said Tambellini.
Nugent-Hopkins has even had an answer for those wondering how he might hold up to the physical rigours of life in the NHL. During Monday's game in Dallas, the 175-pound forward reacted to some rough play from Brenden Morrow by hammering the Stars captain to the ice. Morrow has 30 pounds and 14 years on the Oilers rookie.
Save for the baby face, Nugent-Hopkins looks like a NHLer in every way. His value to the Oilers extends well behind the impressive offensive start.
“I think he's played well right from Day 1 of the regular season,” said Tambellini. “People are focusing on the production and that's obvious, but I think what the coaching staff was impressed about right from rookie camp is his intelligence in the defensive zone.
“To play centre, that position in the NHL as a young person is quite a task at times.”
One that Nugent-Hopkins is making look easy.
ALL-STAR FORMAT: There might not be a last man standing when the NHL all-star draft is held in Ottawa this season.
One of the most memorable moments from last year's all-star weekend in Carolina was the sight of Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel standing alone on stage prior to being selected with the final pick in the inaugural all-star draft. To soften the blow, Kessel was given a Honda CR-Z and $20,000 for charity.
Rob Blake has inherited the all-star responsibilities from Brendan Shanahan this season and doesn't expect to make any major changes for the Jan. 27-29 event. However, he said Wednesday that the status of the last man standing is still “undecided.”
Blake, the former NHL defenceman and current member of the league's hockey operations department, has meetings scheduled for next week to discuss the draft format and skills competition.
Among the suggestions that have been floating around is having the last few players selected in groups so that the attention isn't put on just one individual. Either way, it should be of little concern to Kessel — the NHL's scoring leader will be a more coveted pick this time around.
TOUGH LOVE: Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau became the fastest coach to reach 200 career victories in NHL history earlier this week.
While the mark comes with an asterisk — his total included 50 shootout and overtime victories, an advantage previous record-holder Don Cherry didn't have — it's still a pretty impressive feat for a man who paid his dues in the minors for almost two decades before getting a NHL job.
The most interesting subplot around the Capitals this season has been Boudreau's efforts to increase accountability on a team carrying high expectations. He exchanged heated words with captain Alex Ovechkin during a game last month, made $6.7-million forward Alex Semin a healthy scratch earlier this week and relegated veteran Joel Ward to the press box for Wednesday's game against Winnipeg after he slept in and missed a team meeting.
“You don't want to do it,” Boudreau told reporters of scratching Ward. “He's a good player but the rules have got to be the rules for everybody. It's an unfortunate thing he overslept but he missed it.
“He understands the rules — he's a good team guy. He feels bad about it but he knows the rules.”
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