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Nugent-Hopkins' whirlwind rookie season 'surreal'

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored 18 goals and 52 points in 62 games.

Red Deer, AB - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins doesn't know who the Oilers' leading candidate is at No. 1 overall, but he does understand the pressure and excitement that goes hand-in-hand with high expectations.

"Just getting the chance to be a high pick was so exciting," he said as caught up with him at the Love of Children Golf Classic Monday morning in Red Deer.

"I went through it [last year]. It's a little nerve-racking at times, but the best thing you can do is not worry about it. At this point, you've done all you can do."

RNH hasn't seen much of the No. 1-ranked Nail Yakupov, but is good buddies with Everett Silvertips D man Ryan Murray. Murray, 18, is a smooth skating, mobile, puck-moving rearguard that ended the 2011-12 campaign having recorded nine goals and 31 points in an abbreviated, 46-game season.

He was also invited to participate in the 2012 World Hockey Championship in Helsinki -- alongside Nugent-Hopkins, with whom he shared a room.

"I know him (Murray) well and he's handling it great," Nugent-Hopkins said prior to his 9:00am tee time. "He's trying to stay relaxed and trying not to think about it too much. You want to go as high as possible, but you can't get too worried about it. It's a lot of fun and it's an experience that you only go through once, so you have to enjoy it."

Murray was already well versed in the red and white's on-ice vernacular, as he debuted with Team Canada earlier in the year at the 2012 World Junior Championship in Edmonton.

But playing in Helsinki, with and alongside pros (and role models) was a whole new ball game. Still, nothing phased the White City, SK product.

"He stepped right in, looked really good out there and didn't look a step behind or anything. Everyone was impressed with that," Nugent-Hopkins explained. "Off the ice, he's a great kid. I've spent quite a bit of time with him; he's an outstanding guy and a great leader."

RNH had a sensational rookie season in which 18 goals and 52 points were scored, but he and the Oilers still ended up 29th in the NHL's 30-team league. With championship-caliber goals in mind, he's letting the pros' due-diligence make the call on who should be chosen.

There's no question Murray's all-around skill-set on the backend would be a welcomed addition, but is it worth passing up on another elite, dynamic sniper that Nugent-Hopkins could dish to?

"It's tough to say," he chuckled. Whatever the staff decides, I'm sure will be the right move. It's a good spot to be in, having the No. 1 pick. No matter what, it's pretty exciting and I know they'll take the right guy. You can't go wrong."

Nugent-Hopkins will be in attendance on June 22 in Pittsburgh and will go on stage with General Manager Steve Tambellini, Head Amateur Scout Stu MacGregor and others as the selection is made.

That moment will cap what's been a remarkable calendar year.

"It's been surreal, it's been a whirlwind," he said, looking back at all his accomplishments, which includes a Rookie of the Year nomination. (The winner will be announced on June 20th.)

"It's a big honour. There are a lot of good rookies in the league this year and it's exciting to be a part of that class. Whatever happens, happens. I know (Colorado's) Gabriel (Landeskog) pretty well and I know he's looking forward to it -- and while I don't know (New Jersey's) Adam (Henrique) that well, I'm sure he's pretty excited, too."

Nugent-Hopkins equaled Landeskog's point output with 52 on the season, but the Colorado winger was awarded the rookie scoring title by virtue of having scored more goals (22 to RNH's 18).

Still, it was that impressive total -- compiled in 20 less games, even -- that earned Nugent-Hopkins a spot in Helsinki. There, he performed admirably, scoring four goals and six points, along with a +2 rating in seven games.

It also provided the pivot with a chance to experience a whole new level of pro intensity.

"Right when I got asked to go, I was excited," he said. "Anytime you get to put on a Canadian sweater, it's exciting and it was a big honour. I'm really happy I went; it was a great experience. I learned a lot from the other guys I was playing with.

"In that tournament, every game means so much. It's a lot like playoff hockey. I've been watching as much of it as I can -- it makes you want to be out there, to be part of it all. Every single game means so much and everyone is working their bag off every second.

"That's where we need to be -- that next level."

Adding [insert No. 1 overall pick] to the Oilers' burgeoning arsenal can only help.

Just like Nugent-Hopkins has.

-- Ryan Dittrick, - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
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