The NHL lockout has permitted many players to chat among themselves and recently, in one of those conversations, the Edmonton Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins compared his future with Jason Spezza's past.
In the 2004-05 season, Spezza, then 21, was in the same boat that Nugent-Hopkins finds himself in now, assigned (for development purposes) by the Ottawa Senators to their primary AHL affiliate in Binghamton. Spezza, who already had 111 NHL games under his belt, took his assignment the right way and won both the AHL scoring title and its MVP award.
When NHL play resumed the next year, Spezza had a full developmental year under his belt and was ready to hit the ground running. It paid off in a 90-point breakthrough NHL season. Not every locked-out NHLer moved forward during the previous work stoppage, but Spezza did, and so on Friday, when Nugent-Hopkins reports to the Oklahoma City Barons to begin his first (and likely only) AHL training camp, Spezza's words of advice will be ringing in his ears.
According to Nugent-Hopkins, Spezza told him, "he felt like he had an advantage over the guys who didn't play a year because he was more game ready. So hearing that from a guy like him is really good. It brings me a lot of confidence in going down there."
Nugent-Hopkins played 62 games as a rookie for the Oilers last year, after being the first player chosen in the 2011 entry draft. In the first month, he was in the top 10 in NHL scoring, this after speculation that he might have to go back to junior for one more year of seasoning because of his slight frame. At Christmas, he was still in good company, tied for 18th in the scoring race with James Neal, Nicklas Backstrom and Patrick Kane, one point behind Pavel Datsyuk and Jordan Eberle, one point ahead of Erik Karlsson.
He seemed like a sure-fire Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year, until a shoulder injury cost him the final 20 games of the season and permitted the Colorado Avalanche's Gabriel Landeskog to edge him for the award.
For the moment anyway, the Avalanche haven't assigned Landeskog to play anywhere. Under terms of the now expired collective agreement, players who've played 160 NHL games or fewer, regular-season and playoffs, can go to the AHL without any waiver consequence, which is why Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle are eligible to play in the minors, but the Boston Bruins' Tyler Seguin isn't (too many playoff games). Once the Oilers' Taylor Hall is fully recovered from shoulder surgery, he too, can go down to Oklahoma City, home of the basketball Thunder.
The Oilers' Kiddie Corps may be kings in Edmonton, but down in Oke City, the town belongs to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
In the meantime, Nugent-Hopkins says he is "100 per cent" recovered from his own shoulder issues, and is "feeling better than I've ever felt before.
"I've never been injured like that before, so it was a little disappointing. I just tried to take any positive I could, like watching from upstairs and seeing the game from a slightly different point of view. It's frustrating, if you let it be, but I just tried to stay positive and help out my teammates where I could."
And if the lockout is still in place at Christmas, well, there's one other tantalizing possibility – that Canada will ice a Dream Team for the world junior tournament, which will be played in Ufa, Russia, this year. With a birth date of April, 1993, Nugent-Hopkins is still eligible to play in a world junior and there is a precedent from the last lockout, when the Boston Bruins' Patrice Bergeron returned to play world junior (and was captain of that Sidney Crosby-Ryan Getzlaf-Dion Phaneuf team) after playing a full NHL season the year before.
Ultimately, the Oilers will make that call, in conjunction with Nugent-Hopkins, when and if that decision needs to be made. But Oilers brass, including VP of hockey operations Kevin Lowe and GM Steve Tambellini, is well connected with Hockey Canada, and so there's a real possibility that if the player and the organization can both be served by his playing world junior, they may give him permission to go.
That's all speculation for now. The reality is that camps open this weekend, the AHL regular season starts Oct. 12 and for now, anyway, the Oiler is now an oil Baron – and prepared to make the most of the opportunity.
"I'm just going to go in and play and not worry – too much – about the outside stuff going on. Obviously, I'm going to be involved as much as I can be with it, but I'm just going to get on the ice and focus on that – and whatever happens, happens."