|Are you ready, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins?|
Alright, maybe he won't score 82 points this year - even though he's on pace for it! - but so far he does look ready to take a step up. There were moments when he was the best player on the ice in both games that he's appeared in. Of course, that isn't saying much considering the quality of competition, but if the point of having him play these games was to see if he could handle it, it's mission accomplished on his part.
He's showcased the vision and puck skills that made him the #1 pick, but his ability to strip opposing players of the puck is reminiscent of Datsyuk - a player that he's been compared to at the NHL level. He doesn't seem overwhelmed - mentally or physically - like young players can sometimes be, and he's managed to put up points. More importantly, he's generating plenty of chances. If he can keep it up as the games get tougher, it will be hard to send him back to Red Deer.
He got killed in the faceoff dot though, which is something that the Oilers don't need more of. Eric Belanger talked about learning to win draws all the way back in Junior, so if Nugent-Hopkins did go back his faceoff skills could improve there. On the other hand, RNH could learn to take draws from the likes of Belanger and Horcoff. Which is better for his development?
If Nugent-Hopkins does stay in Edmonton, the center depth chart will look something like this:
In the pre-season RNH has spent all his time with Smyth and Eberle, which means that he'd probably be centering that second line in the NHL. That's a solid group, and it puts Horcoff in a third line role, which is probably where his career path has led him. On a championship team Horcoff would be no further up the depth chart than that.
Of course, the grind of an NHL season is something that no young man can truly prepare for, but the only way to learn it is by experiencing it. Another year of Junior hockey won't do that for RNH.
Tonight the Oilers played an AHL team, but Chicago iced some actual veterans on Tuesday and Nugent-Hopkins didn't look out of place. If he looks as good in the final pre-season game as he has in the first two, he's probably ready to make the jump.