The 21-year-old finally had a healthy off-season, undeterred by the shoulder injury which stole his summer away last year. He used these last months to bulk up to 192 pounds, a full 17 pounds heavier than the 175 he says was his playing weight in 2011. That was the year Nugent-Hopkins was selected first overall in the draft. And now with three seasons under his belt, it’s time to reach another level.
“I definitely want to make that next step here,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Every year I’ve taken small strides. I know it’s my fourth year in the league now and I think this is the year I’ve really got to step up and be a big impact on this team and make sure I’m good every night, don’t take any nights off.”
In raising his play to another level, Nugent-Hopkins looks to be able to hold up better against the big, skilled centres that control the Western Conference.
“If I’m going to be successful and my wingers are going to be successful in this league, especially in the West, there are a lot of big centremen out there. We’ve got to get used to playing against them. We’re probably not going to beat them physically, but we can definitely beat them with our skill and our speed. We’ve got to take that attitude into every night.”
Physically matching up with the bigger centres is always a tough task. But the roughly 10 pounds of muscle Nugent-Hopkins packed on this summer is sure to help.
“Everyone worked hard in the off-season and every team in the conference is doing the same thing,” Nugent-Hopkins’ linemate Taylor Hall said. “For Nuge, he’s always been a player who I’ve loved playing with and he always battles super hard. Him gaining weight should help him for sure.”
Nugent-Hopkins skated for much of the summer. He stuck to a diet that was high on proteins, under the guidance of his brother who is a trainer. In addition to skating, working on his face-offs and sticking to his diet, Nugent-Hopkins hit the gym hard.
“It was a good summer for me to really work on my strength,” he said. “The early part of the summer, like everybody else, you’re lifting more and trying to bulk up a bit. Then as the summer goes on you lean out a bit and start working on the power stuff. The early part of the summer I started seeing those gains in my strength and my weight and my bulkiness.”
But the biggest success is that he’s healthy.
“It was a good off-season for me and I’m excited to have no issues going into camp.”
To take things to the next level this season and match the quality of competition he will face, Nugent-Hopkins understands that it’s not all about just being bigger and stronger. He needs to continue to round out his game.
“No matter how big I get, I doubt I’m going to be able to dominate them physically but it’s just having good position on them all of the time and having my stick in the right place,” he said. “The more that we have the puck, the less that they can produce offensively too. We just have to try and use our skill and our speed to our advantage.”
Nugent-Hopkins finished last season with a career high 19 goals and 56 points. He is looking to build off those numbers, but once again it is more about the complete game than the stat sheet.
“I don’t have goals set out for points-wise or anything like that. I just want to make sure that I work with my linemates obviously but I can produce more offensively and I’ve got to make sure that I’m a solid two-way player. It’s a fine line between offence and defence here, especially in this league. I’ve got to find that and the more that we have the puck, the better we play defensively, the more chances we have offensively.”
Nugent-Hopkins sees year four as a turning point in his career. It’s an opportunity for him to assert himself as the Oilers top centre and make major strides heading into a season he looks at with optimism and confidence.
“It’s exciting. It’s my fourth year in the league now and it’s crazy that it’s already my fourth. It’s time to do it and it’s something that I really want to grab a hold of and just take charge.”