Should Ryan Nugent-Hopkins stay in the NHL or go back to the WHL? Here are the facts about players picked first overall over the last 20 years (1991-2010):
14 of the 20 players selected first in the NHL draft from 1991-2010 jumped directly to the NHL.
2 of the players that didn't make the jump (Jovanovski and Ovechkin) were held back because of lockouts in the big show. There is some debate about whether or not Jovanovski would have made the Florida Panthers, but there is no doubt that Ovechkin would have gone directly to the NHL if he had had the opportunity to do so. Eric Lindros would certainly have made it 16 of the 20 first picks to make the dance if he had been willing to play for the Nordiques. He was not, so he spent another year in the OHL awaiting a trade.
The only other player aside from RNH who was drafted first overall from the WHL - Chris Phillips - was one of those held back for one year. However, Phillips is a defenseman and that was back in 1996. 4 of the 6 players who didn't jump straight to the NHL were drafted between 1991-1996.
No player has been held back since Erik Johnson was taken first overall in 2006.
No forward has failed to directly make the jump except for Lindros and Ovechkin, who both had other circumstances than ability holding them back.
At least 2 of these picks were busts. The jury is still out on DiPietro, but he's teetering on the precipice if he's not over already. The two busts were Daigle and Stefan, both of whom went straight to the NHL and neither of whom were busts for that reason. Daigle scored 20-31-51 as a rookie for Ottawa, but didn't have the drive to stay in the NHL, and Stefan was simply a busted pick in a bad draft class. His 35 points in 33 IHL games were hardly indicative of a future offensive superstar.
Perhaps 3 of these players - Thornton, Lecavalier and DiPietro - would have benefitted from remaining at a lower level for another season. Thornton scored just 3-4-7 in 55 games as a rookie, Lecavalier had 13-15-28 in 82 games, and DiPietro posted just a 3-15-1 record as a rookie before being demoted. When DiPietro returned to full time NHL duty he was much improved. Neither Thornton or Lecavalier had their careers ruined by being rushed to the NHL.
So, should Nugent-Hopkins be the 15th first overall pick in the last 21 years to go straight to the NHL?
RNH is now 6'1" and around 180 pounds. Joe Thornton was 6'4" and 198 pounds on draft day, and yet he failed to make an impact right away. Lecavalier was 6'4" and 180 pounds. He performed better than Thornton, but didn't necessarily live up to the hype as a rookie. Stefan was 6'1" and 205 pounds. Patrick Kane was listed at 5'10" and 160 pounds, yet he came in and scored 21-51-72 in 82 games as a rookie.
What matters when it comes to making the NHL is not necessarily size, but an ability to understand the game at that higher level. Nugent-Hopkins is so far above his peers in the WHL that his brain might be a fit in the NHL. At the very least the NHL experience can teach him more than the CHL can. If he looks ready after 9 games there is no precedent that suggests he should not remain an Oiler because it will be bad for his development.