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Tencer's Blog: RNH en route to NHL

by Dan Tencer / Edmonton Oilers
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins completes the V02-Max test at the 2011 NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto last week. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Life is a whirlwind right now for 18-year-old Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. In the last seven days he has met with 14 NHL teams, been put through the rigorous paces of the NHL Scouting Combine, attended Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final and been prodded countless times by members of the media along the way.The farthest thing from being overwhelmed, one can sense that Nugent-Hopkins is actually in his element right now. On the ice as a centerman in the Western Hockey League, he looks forward to the pressure of a game changing moment, longing for the chance to make a split second decision with the game on the line. Off the ice as a teenager in his draft year, he's similarly motivated to do what is necessary to achieve his goal of being selected first.

"It has been a lot of fun so far. I'm really excited about everything going on right now," Nugent-Hopkins told me last night after arriving back in Red Deer. "It definitely makes me want to get bigger and stronger and make the jump to the next level."

Based on talent and hockey sense, success in the NHL seems to be a foregone conclusion for this young star. I've been told more times than I can remember, by scouts and coaches and managers at various levels, "you can't pass on this kid, you'd just be too scared to pass on this kid."

An excellent playmaker, Nugent-Hopkins also has a very strong shot and excellent speed. He's willing to go into the corner to make a play and, like most other point scoring young forwards, he won't tell you he's a master in the defensive zone.

The drawback, and there's always a drawback when the light shines on a player so intensely for so long, is his size. Standing 6'0" tall, or close to it, Nugent-Hopkins played his WHL season in Red Deer weighing just over 160 lbs. However, putting up 106 points in the regular season, this didn't seem to present much of a problem. Even against defensemen who were larger, in some cases, by more than six inches and 50 lbs.

"I feel like more this year than ever that I was being targeted," says Nugent-Hopkins. "If they're watching me, it leaves space and time open for my linemates. I tried to draw the defensemen to me and then move the puck. On the ice, I try to use everything to my advantage."

That said, making the jump to the NHL will make it a rule rather than an exception, and he'll find that most of the players he's up against will have a size advantage, especially in his early years. "The guys in the NHL are grown men and they're all very big and very strong," Nugent-Hopkins understands. "I know if I want to make the NHL I have to put on weight and put on muscle."

The silver lining of getting knocked out of the WHL playoffs in the second round was that Nugent-Hopkins was able to hit the gym and make use of a summer that ended up being longer than he wanted it to be. "I definitely used it to my advantage, taking a couple of weeks off and then heading straight to the gym," he says. "I've put on between eight and nine pounds and I feel like I can put a few more on before the end of the summer."

I feel like I've been able to make the jump from one level to another pretty smoothly over the last few years. The NHL is a different story, but if I put some weight on, I think I'll be able to do it. - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Nugent-Hopkins, it just so happened, had weighed in right before my conversation with him: 173 lbs. He feels like he should wear the number on his forehead every day, because it seems that's everybody's first question. It's a point of pride, then, when he can declare that his body is changing. "Oh yeah. I've never been able to put on weight like this," he says proudly. "I'm not doing anything different than I did last summer, I just feel like I'm starting to mature and fill out my body finally."

With his size on the rise, Nugent-Hopkins isn't left with any doubt in his mind about his ability to play in the NHL next year. Simply put, he's supremely confident that he's ready.

"The biggest thing that would help me is my hockey sense," he told me. "I feel like I've been able to make the jump from one level to another pretty smoothly over the last few years, and the NHL is a different story, but if I put some weight on, I think I'll be able to do it."

Nugent-Hopkins met with the Oilers at the Scouting Combine for a formal interview with their management team, and has met on numerous previous occasions with Stu MacGregor and Bob Brown from the scouting department. Last year, Oilers GM Steve Tambellini talked a lot after selecting Taylor Hall about how he sensed that Hall was thriving on the potential pressure of being selected at #1. It appears that Nugent-Hopkins is cut from the same cloth.

"I'd absolutely love it," he says of the possibility of being drafted first overall. "It would be a huge honour for me, and I know there would be extra pressure going to a great place like Edmonton, but I'd like to have the pressure on me. I always feel like I play better under pressure. I feel like I'd really enjoy that."
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