, the first pick of the 2011 Entry Draft, apparently has passed his first major test with the Edmonton Oilers
on the way to what he hopes will be an exhilarating NHL career.
Following a productive preseason, Nugent-Hopkins appears to be in line for a nine-game NHL audition. Before he plays his 10th game, the Oilers will have to decide if the center will stick with the big club or go back to his junior team, the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League.
Nugent-Hopkins, who was skating alongside Ales Hemsky
and Taylor Hall
in the team's final exhibition game, led the Oilers with 6 points, including 5 assists, in four preseason games.
The team's ninth game of the season is Oct. 27, at home against the Washington Capitals
"Ryan will start the season with us," Oilers coach Tom Renney told the Edmonton Journal. "We all understand the parameters there that he can operate within before we have to make a real concrete decision. Again, we'll do it a game at a time, but he has had a very good camp."
The Oilers open the season Sunday at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins
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"I can't let my emotions get the best of me, but I'm very happy with the way things have gone," Nugent-Hopkins said.
The Oilers' 10th game will be in Colorado on Oct. 28. With the second pick, the Avs selected power forward Gabriel Landeskog
, who also appears to have earned a spot on the team.
The decision to keep Nugent-Hopkins wasn't too much of a surprise considering the Oilers will start the season without center Sam Gagner
(sprained ankle). By all reports, Nugent-Hopkins, the Canadian Hockey League's top prospect last year, has looked impressive on the power play but has taken his share of hits.
The odds of him being returned to Red Deer, at this point, are 50-50; it all depends on how well his 6-foot, 171-pound frame holds up to the pounding of nine NHL games in a span of two weeks.
One person sure to be watching Nugent-Hopkins closely is his coach in Red Deer, Jesse Wallin
"I talked to him quite a bit early on in camp just to see how he was doing," Wallin told NHL.com. "But I haven't been in touch with him a whole lot lately; just a text here and there to see how he's doing. It was his first camp and he enjoyed himself. It's all new and exciting and a great experience for him, and he handled it really well."
Wallin was asked if he's torn between seeing Nugent-Hopkins make the Oilers or having him return to Red Deer for a third full season.
"You want the best for him, and selfishly we'd love to have him back here," Wallin said. "So from that end of things, we'd absolutely want to have him back in Red Deer. But having said that, if he makes the Oilers, then that's what it's all about, as well. We're here to develop guys for the NHL and that's our No. 1 goal and if he's prepared to make that step this year, then we've done our job and that's good for our program."
Nugent-Hopkins entered the 2011 draft as the No. 1-ranked North American skater on NHL Central Scouting's final list in April. He led the Rebels and finished tied for third in the WHL scoring race with 106 points in 69 games, while his 75 assists led all WHL players. He was also named Player of the Game for Team Orr at the 2011 Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
"Ultimately, at the end of the day, what I want to see happen is what's best for Ryan and for him as a player," Wallin said. "It's about what's going to be best for him this year and not just for this season but for long-term, as well. I just think he's a very special talent and I think he's going to be a big-time NHL player. I say that not only because of his ability but because of his personality traits … he's just got a real level head on his shoulders and has that type of personality that you see in real elite hockey players."
During Canada's National Junior Team development camp in August, Nugent-Hopkins was in the spotlight since the event was held in Edmonton. At the time, Canada head scout Kevin Prendergast said he believed Nugent-Hopkins had a better than 50 percent chance of making the Oilers. He also said it would be up to the player to convince Renney he's ready to take that next step -- but it won't be easy.
"If playing for the Edmonton Oilers
benefits him long-term, then that's great and good for hockey and that's his dream and I'm sure that's what he's trying to accomplish and what he should be trying to accomplish," Wallin said. "But if benefitting him long-term requires he return to Red Deer, we'll certainly welcome him with open arms and continue working with him to get him prepared to make that step when he's ready."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale