Anyone who knows me or reads this blog on a semi-regular basis knows that my opinion on who the Oilers should draft with their first pick this year has changed as the season wore on. Before the season started I was a proponent of drafting Adam Larsson first overall (assuming the Oilers had that pick), mostly because he was the most highly touted player I'd heard about up to then. Then I started to think about some of the things I've discussed in the draft primers here, and Sean Couturier seemed like the best choice. It didn't hurt that he became the mostly highly touted prospect. Since the midpoint of the season, Couturier's offensive production and overall ranking has slipped a little, and another player has emerged as the front runner for number one.
That player is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who just dissected the Edmonton Oil Kings tonight. There wasn't really a point in the game where he dominated, especially in the first two periods. He wasn't overly flashy. He won puck battles and created turnovers, but early on in the game it looked like it was going to be a quiet night for the Nuge. In fact, the Oil Kings played very well, outshooting Red Deer 37-24 and staying in the game most of the way through. They managed to mostly shut down Red Deer's star player, limiting him to one assist through two periods and accomplishing their stated goal of allowing him only one or two points per game.
Then Nugent-Hopkins appeared, scoring two goals and three points in the third period. He finished with a four-point night and the Rebels skated off with a 5-3 win on home ice, taking a 1-0 series lead.
Nugent-Hopkins' game is interesting because it seems that he has that innate ability to appear out of nowhere and create scoring chances. The great thing about him is that he has the skill to convert those chances as well. Overall his game seems fundamentally sound enough, though he only finished the night as a +1. His defensive game is decent but not outstanding, and he works hard in the corners, often coming out with the puck. Or, if not, he puts it in a place where his team mates can help him in the battle.
He looks NHL ready to me, for the most part. Physically, he's not the smallest guy out there and of course he's not the biggest. Then again, these are kids he's playing against. Having said that, it's precisely because he's playing against kids that I'm not sure how much more he can learn in the WHL. He finished with the same 106 points that Jordan Eberle had last year, and Eberle was in his fourth year in the WHL. Nugent-Hopkins can't go to the AHL yet because of his age, so it's either the NHL or back to Red Deer. The one positive I could see from sending him back to Junior would be that he could play for Canada at the World Juniors in December, but what he'll glean from that tournament is not equivalent to what he'll learn in the NHL.
One interesting aspect is that the Nuge plays the point on Red Deer's powerplay, and he seems reasonably proficient at it. I'm not convinced that he would get that chance in the NHL, but it's an interesting dynamic for the Oilers, who lack truly gifted powerplay men on the point apart from Ryan Whitney.
Naturally, sending him back to Junior would also give him time to bulk up, but I'm not sure how much of a difference that ten pounds is going to make, because he doesn't play a physical game anyway. Sam Gagner was told that he needed to bulk up when he made the jump, and he did so. After a while he found that the extra weight actually hindered his speed and playmaking ability, so he decided in this past off season to take weight off. Before he got hurt, he was on pace for a career year in the NHL.
I still like Couturier's size better, but I think Nugent-Hopkins' offensive abilities are superior to that of Couturier. Couturier's defensive game is - from what I've heard, at least - probably better than that of Nugent-Hopkins. Everyone talks about Couturier's skating being an issue, but I didn't see much evidence of explosive skating from Nugent-Hopkins tonight. He seemed to coast around the rink at times, though that didn't prevent him from being in the play and in position. He almost lulls you into a false sense of security and then all of a sudden he lights you up for a bunch of goals.
This isn't the first time I've seen Nugent-Hopkins play, but admittedly my sample size when it comes to his abilities is very small. As the playoffs wear on, we will really see how good Nugent-Hopkins is, because now is the time for him to elevate his game. Before the CHL playoffs are over, we'll know what pick the Oilers have, and we'll truly be able to assess who they should select.