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Oilers' Nugent-Hopkins expected back Monday

by Derek Van Diest

EDMONTON -- The news was surprising, to say the least.

Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins began his media session after Friday's practice by dispelling rumors that center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would be back in just over a week. Instead, he said, Nugent-Hopkins will return Monday when the Oilers host the New Jersey Devils, nearly four weeks ahead of schedule, after undergoing shoulder surgery in April.

"It goes back to what I've tried to explain a few times on injuries," Eakins said. "I think it's dangerous to put timelines on guys because one of two things happens. If we tell you four weeks and he comes back in two, then he's back too early. But if it turns into six weeks, then you think somebody screwed up with the rehab.

"So you go back to what I believe, which is, the guy's out until he's ready to play or he's cleared to play. He's been cleared by all of our doctors, he's been working hard in practice, he's fit and he's ready to go. He's cleared by everyone in our organization to play on that day."

Nugent-Hopkins originally injured his shoulder during his rookie season when he stumbled into the boards during a game against the Chicago Blackhawks. He sat out for a month before returning to tie for the rookie scoring title and become a Calder Trophy finalist. Nugent-Hopkins started the 2012-13 season with Oklahoma City of the American Hockey League during the NHL lockout and played for Canada at the World Junior Championship.

He returned to Edmonton at the conclusion of the lockout and labored through a shortened season before it was determined he needed surgery.

To say he's eager to get back on the ice would be putting it mildly.

"It's very exciting, I can't wait to get playing on Monday," Nugent-Hopkins said. "It's been a long recovery, definitely well worth it, I'm feeling really good.

"It's awesome that I only had to miss a couple of games. The biggest thing is that I'm confident in it right now, I wouldn't be going back if I wasn't."

Nugent-Hopkins last played on April 19 when he scored a goal in a 4-1 road victory against the Colorado Avalanche. Four days later he traveled to Cleveland to undergo surgery. He was not expected to return until early November.

"I just got my strength up, the healing is done, my strength is up where it needs to be," Nugent-Hopkins said. "Obviously I need to get some contact in. I've had a couple of weeks of that in practice and everything has felt really good. Once I got the strength up, it was just a matter of when I was able to go.

"It's definitely a little bit earlier than I thought, because they said five or six months and it's usually closer to six. It's definitely a positive thing and I'm definitely excited to get back."

Nugent-Hopkins' return will help fill a void at center for the Oilers, who are also without Sam Gagner for at least another month. Gagner broke his jaw when hit in the face by the stick of Vancouver Canucks winger Zack Kassian during a preseason game.

"It was tough seeing [Gagner] get hurt like that; it was a big hit to the team," Nugent-Hopkins said. "But as far as I was concerned, I had to be 100 percent ready, no matter what. It's definitely a bonus that I got to come back early. I guess it was all just right timing."

With both Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner out of the lineup, the Oilers moved left wing Taylor Hall to center. Hall underwent a similar procedure last year.

"I think it's really impressive how early he's come back," Hall said. "It's a really tough surgery and he had a schedule. And not only be ahead of schedule, but to comeback ahead of schedule is great."

Nugent-Hopkins' return can't come soon enough for the Oilers. Edmonton has dropped its first two games of the season and most recently suffered a 6-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night at Rogers Arena. Nugent-Hopkins is expected to skate on a line with Hall on the left and Jordan Eberle on the right.

"It's a testament to the training staff here and how much work he's really put in, it's going to be great to have him back in the lineup," Hall said. "He's going to feel a lot better than he did last year and he's going to be a huge addition to our lineup."

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