Ryan Nugent-Hopkins addresses the media on Friday, Sep. 9 as the rookies reported for medicals at Rexall Place.
The Young Stars Tournament in Penticton this week was another nice sneak peek into the future of the Edmonton Oilers. Though it's impossible to truly evaluate a player's talent and ability against less than NHL competition, the three-game set was good for some initial impressions on these players.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was, of course, the focal point of the entire tournament. He assisted on two goals over the course of games against Vancouver and Winnipeg before sitting out the finale against Calgary. To say he was impressive would be totally understating it, even if much of it was fairly subtle.
For starters, he made a great first impression on his future coach, Tom Renney, with his defensive positioning. Renney commented to Oilers GM Steve Tambellini that he felt Nugent-Hopkins was well ahead of most players his age in terms of defensive awareness. In particular, I took notice of his puck pursuit and stick-checking abilities. There were a number of plays throughout the two games that Nugent-Hopkins was in pursuit of an opponent who had the puck and was successful in catching him and firmly stick-checking him to strip the puck.
It was, in a word, very Datsyukian of him.
Offensively, a couple of things stood out. The first one was very surprising to me, and that was his physical play. With so much said and written about his size, Nugent-Hopkins displayed a constant willingness to engage and even initiate physical contact. Steve Tambellini told me that he didn't expect to see that last season when he started paying close attention to Nugent-Hopkins, but that he found out very quickly that Ryan plays with a competitve fire that does, quite often, lead to him throwing bodychecks.
On one play in particular versus Vancouver, Nugent-Hopkins caused a turnover by landing a check behind the opposition net, which led to a Grade A scoring chance on which Curtis Hamilton was robbed of a goal by Canucks keeper David Honzik.
When I spoke to Nugent-Hopkins, I theorized that he might have gone out of his way over the two games to demonstrate his physical ability as part of a response to the critics of his size and strength. He smiled, and politely informed me that it's always been a part of his game and that he wasn't responding to any criticisms with his performance.
Finally, his work on the powerplay was impressive. Off the half wall, the young man is quite simply an artist. He made passes and bolted through seams and made plays that most of us from upstairs couldn't have drawn up, let alone seen from ice level in the middle of the fray. He was as comfortable running a powerplay as anyone you'll ever see, and I feel pretty safe in saying that he'll be running up the points on special teams whenever he ends up in the NHL.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins wasn't the only impressive player at camp, not by a long shot. Here are some of my quick scribbles on some of the other notables:
* Olivier Roy and Tyler Bunz both acquitted themselves nicely in goal. Roy struggled last year and a solid training camp will go a long way to helping him hit the ground running in his first pro season, which I expect will start with a lot of action in Stockton of the ECHL. I assess one of Roy's major challenges as needing to get mentally stronger, and more quickly able to let go of bad goals or bad games. Bunz is a year behind Roy, and one wonders if we're in for another battle of a WHL vs. QMJHL keeper in the Oilers system following the Devan Dubnyk/Jeff Deslauriers battle that got settled last season.
Bunz had a great year in Medicine Hat, but will need to start faster this year than he did last season if he wants a shot at playing for Team Canada in the World Juniors. He looks very comfortable in the net and is very confident in his game and I think he'll have a huge year in Medicine Hat.
* The Oilers defence was very young and very raw at this tournament. I would have loved to see more of Colten Teubert, who was probably the most polished (maybe aside from Taylor Fedun) of the blueliners that they had on their roster. The crop of future talent certainly has a lot of size and many of them (Marincin, Gernat especially) have very offensive skill sets, if they can learn to keep the on ice gambling in check.
* Anton Lander is going to make noise at this training camp. His skating has improved and he's developed into his body very nicely, absolutely having NHL ready size and strength. He scored 3 goals and spent lots of time on the penalty kill, plus everything in between. By far the most obviously well-rounded of any forward at the camp, Lander also appears to have one of the strongest work ethics.
Steve Tambellini concurred when I suggested that this player is simply too driven and motivated to fail. It's a cliche, but Anton Lander "gets it". After Wednesday's loss to Calgary, a game in which Lander scored another goal, he was visibly upset when I spoke with him after the game. He talked about being disappointed with the loss and being upset with himself for a slow start. This wasn't even a pre-season game! Lander was frustrated with a sub-par (in his assessment) performance in a rookie exhibition match!
Some guys say the right things, but I'm here to tell you that he's all genuine. It's easy to see why he was the captain of Sweden's World Junior team and an alternate for Timra in the Elite League.
* Tyler Pitlick was demonstrably relieved when he rifled home a goal in the final game of the tournament against Calgary. He got hurt right before the playoffs last season in Medicine Hat, so it was roughly 6 months without game action for him before playing a couple this week. In the first bunch of periods for him, he was doing well to rush the puck and displayed a heavy physical presence, but never found a clear opportunity to showcase his awesome shot.
Finally, Curtis Hamilton put one on the tee for him and he made no mistake, following it with a hefty fist pump. Pitlick has a big camp ahead of him because he's turning pro this year and will play in Oklahoma City of the AHL after just one season of WHL experience.
* Antti Tyrvainen introduced himself to Oilers fans pretty loudly with a goal, a fight and a number of bone-crunching hits. He played the exact same game over in Finland, and according to him they don't like the hitting as much over there, so he often found himself penalized for it. The human pinball put on quite a show in the 3 games he played and the fans in Oklahoma City should be looking forward to him becoming a fan favorite.