At the conclusion of the 2013-14 season, RNH knew he had a golden opportunity waiting in front of him after a tumultuous past year. He had shoulder surgery in April 2013 and missed the entire pre-season, as well as the first two regular season games, bouncing back to put up 19 goals and 56 points in 80 games. Numbers-wise, not a bad showing from the 2011 first-overall draft pick.
Physically, though, RNH knew he was often getting outmatched by some of the larger, more experienced Western Conference pivots, having to square off against the likes of Anze Kopitar, Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Kesler on a near-nightly basis. With his shoulder rehabilitation hindering his 2013 off-season development, it was go time in summer 2014.
“Personally, I think I could have had a more productive year,” RNH said following the 2013-14 campaign. “I think I made some steps in the right direction and I just have to keep working this summer and have a good year next year. I’ll keep watching the great centremen out there and learning from them.”
TIME TO STEP UP
With the first season of a new contract coming up and a hindrance-free summer ahead of him, RNH attacked the weight room. Working with his personal trainer, brother Adam, back home in Burnaby, B.C., the 21-year-old was able to add 10 to 15 pounds of muscle to his six-foot frame, returning to Edmonton for camp last September noticeably thicker.
“I want to make that next step,” RNH said during training camp. “Every year I’ve taken some small strides. It’s my fourth year in the league now, this is the year I really have to step up, make a big impact and make sure that I’m good every night. It’s time for the young guys to step up and make a big impact on our team.”
Step up is exactly what RNH has done, currently tied for the team scoring lead at the mid-season break and earning the right to represent the Oilers at the NHL All-Star weekend in Columbus. He stormed out of the gate and showcased his off-season development during the team’s opening 15 games, putting up points in all but four of them and racking up five goals and eight assists in that span.
RNH’s marquee play during his strong start came on the road Nov. 4 in Philadelphia when he got the puck at his own blueline, accelerated through the neutral zone, picked up even more speed to beat a pair Flyers down the right wing, cut towards the net and roofed a wrist shot past Steve Mason for a highlight-reel tally. His noticeably enhanced speed, strength and skill were all on full display on that sequence.
He’s entered the all-star break in a groove as well with four points in his last three games, bringing his totals up to 12 goals and 29 points through 45 games and putting him tied with Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall for the team scoring lead. He also made another jaw-dropping play on Jan. 15 in Tampa, executing a nearly identical individual effort as the play in Philly, this time shorthanded. His shot was stopped by Ben Bishop, but teammate Benoit Pouliot scored on the rebound.
“Right now he’s playing both ends of the ice very well,” Oilers interim head coach Todd Nelson said of RNH’s strong performance and consistency. “He’s playing in all situations and he’s very dependable. It doesn’t matter if he has a couple goals or doesn’t, he’s contributing to the hockey team’s success. he’s elevated his game and he’s been playing some very consistent hockey. We’re very happy for him.”
|Nugent-Hopkins took part in the NHL Skills Challenge Saturday (photo by Getty Images) |
The NHL took notice of his elite-level play as well, selecting him to represent the Oilers in Columbus. Since arriving on Thursday, he’s had the opportunity to spend time with some of the best players in the League, in particular some of those centres he’s trying to model his game after, like Kopitar, Getzlaf and Toews.
“It’s definitely a big honour to be here,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “You get to be around some of these guys and you really realize these are all the top players in the league. They’re guys I know I’ve looked up to for quite a few years now, so it’s really cool to meet them and see their experience around the league.”
Toews in particular has been a player RNH has looked at as an example of what he needs to do to succeed in the NHL. The Blackhawks captain is five years older than him and already has two Stanley Cups on his resumé. His well-balanced two-way play and strong but typically silent leadership are things RNH looks to emulate.
“I’ve watched him for a long time now and played against him for a few years… he’s definitely a guy that I’ve looked up to,” said RNH, who first met Toews at the 2007 Bantam AAA Western Canada Championship in Winnipeg. The hometown star did the ceremonial puck-drop for the final game, which featured RNH’s Burnaby Winter Club.
'A LITTLE BIT SURREAL'
As a first-year all-star, Nugent-Hopkins hasn’t received a ton of attention in Columbus, with the likes of Ovechkin, Kane, Toews, Doughty and many others hogging the spotlight. But he did get a new car thanks to Friday's All-Star Fantasy Draft (which he’s giving to a to-be-determined member of his family) and got to participate in three events during the Skills Competition on Saturday.
“It’s a little bit surreal for me,” said the always-humble and down-to-earth Nugent-Hopkins. “But it’s a really fun experience and I’m glad to be a part of it. I haven’t had too much going on out there, but it was a lot of watching guys show off all their talents.”
As for his own talents, RNH will look to continue his strong season when the Oilers return to action with a two-game homestand against the Minnesota Wild and Buffalo Sabres this week. He’ll look to surpass his career-best 56 points from last season and continue to work towards becoming one of the NHL’s top centremen.
“On a personal level, I’ve felt like I’ve made some strides in my game,” RNH said. “There are still lots aspects of my game I want to get better and keep working on. Obviously, I’m still a young guy and still have a long ways to go, but I feel like I’m making steps in the right direction.”