If the Edmonton Oilers are going to end their seven-year drought and qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they're going to need a healthy Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to revive his role as the club's No. 1 centre.
The No. 1 selection at the 2011 NHL Draft, Nugent-Hopkins missed the final five games of last season and underwent surgery April 24 to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, the same shoulder that forced him to miss 20 games during the 2011-12 season. The nagging injury held the 20-year-old to four goals in 40 games.
With talented forwards Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle -- first-round picks sandwiched around Nugent-Hopkins -- in the mix, it is imperative Nugent-Hopkins is in the middle to feed them the puck. Though the puck didn't go in as often as he would have liked in 2012-13, Nugent-Hopkins did have 20 assists.
"It wasn't the most productive year of my life," Nugent-Hopkins said at the end of last season. "I wanted to be more productive, but I thought I took some steps in other parts of my game, so I've just got to keep working on that. Obviously, I want to be an offensive guy and I've got to keep working on that."
Nugent-Hopkins underwent shoulder surgery on April 24
Nugent-Hopkins is in the midst of rehabilitating from the surgery in his native Burnaby, British Columbia. He is progressing well and is expected to begin skating in the near future, said a team spokesperson. The Oilers are hopeful Nugent-Hopkins will be in the lineup when the team opens the season Oct. 1 against the Winnipeg Jets at Rexall Place.
"It's going really well right now," Nugent-Hopkins told reporters earlier this summer. "Obviously, the first couple of weeks are pretty slow and you can't move it too much. I think the first part's just trying to get the range of motion back. I'm just trying to strengthen it a little bit now. It feels good. It feels better every day, so we're definitely taking some steps. I want to be ready as soon as possible.
"We're not going to try to push it too much, but I think things are going pretty well so far. It's looking good right now."
When healthy, Nugent-Hopkins arguably is one of the more dynamic players in the League. He broke into the NHL as an 18-year-old in 2011 and had 52 points (18 goals, 34 assists) in 62 games. As a crucial part of the Oilers' rebuilding effort, general manager Craig MacTavish is willing to wait for a healthy Nugent-Hopkins rather than rush him back. He's not prepared to say his No. 1 centre will be on the ice for the season opener.
"It's too soon for that," MacTavish recently told CHED 630 AM in Edmonton. "But by all accounts he's doing
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins enters his third professional season in 2013
very, very well. We know that obviously we're not going to rush him in any way, shape or form. When he first went in for the surgery, the pessimistic date was Nov. 1 and the optimistic date was Oct. 1 when he'd be ready to play. So we're not in a position now to make much more of a judgment call than that, other than he will get absolutely every bit of time that he needs before he's back in our lineup."
With Nugent-Hopkins less than 100 percent, the Oilers finished three games below .500 (19-22-7) and 12th in the Western Conference, again failing to reach the playoffs. But the team will have a different look this season. Aside from the hiring of Dallas Eakins as coach, MacTavish has added Andrew Ference, Boyd Gordon, Denis Grebeshkov, Jason LaBarbera and David Perron.
"I'm excited to get the get the season started," Nugent-Hopkins said. "We didn't end as strong as we would have liked to, but I thought we took some good steps this year and we want to keep building on it."
If the Oilers are going to do that, they'll need Nugent-Hopkins healthy -- and on top of his game.
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL
Author: Brian Compton | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor