Oilers have a dilemma: what to do with their budding star?

Thursday, October 28, 2011 will be D-Day for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Barring injuries or healthy scratches, the home game against Alexander Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals will be his ninth in the Oilers silks. Will he be hopping on the charter plane right after the game, for a quick road trip to Colorado to face the Avalanche the next night, or will he be hitting the road, to drive about 150 km south of Edmonton, to rejoin his junior team in Red Deer?

It’s not going to be his call, even though his efforts between now and then will have major influence on the coaching staff’s (and team management’s) decision-making process.

The debate isn’t only about what would serve Nugent-Hopkins’s development better: remaining in the NHL, or returning to the WHL. The debate is also about what is better for the Oilers.

From the outside looking in, it seems to be a no-brainer: keep the guy. After all, what has he got to learn in junior? It’s the same situation that developed with Taylor Hall last season. Talented like nobody’s business, but … Fans met a suggestion that both Hall and the club would be better served with Hall down in junior with derision. Of course, the club’s options were limited: the Oilers couldn’t send Hall to the minors for a few weeks of learning the professional hockey ropes. The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) wouldn’t permit it. Perhaps the NHL should try to raise this subject when they begin negotiations about a new CBA with the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) in less than a year.

And so are the Oilers’ options limited this year, too.

Then there is the option Craig MacTavish used during the 2002-2003 season with a player about as talented and creative as Hall and Nugent-Hopkins: Ales Hemsky. Realizing that he had a gem on his hands, MacTavish decided to ease Hemsky in, rather than throwing him to the wolves. Hemsky was a healthy scratch for a few games here and a few games there, recording 59 games played that season, eventually.

Hemsky at the time was not absolutely pleased with sitting in the press box, but he kept his mouth shut, as a good soldier.

What happens next is not so much about young Nugent-Hopkins’s hockey prowess as it is about his mental and emotional strength. As Jeeves liked to say, it’s all about the psychology of the individual. Thus far, Nugent-Hopkins has proven he’s got most of the tools that a top-notch player needs to survive. Faceoffs are the one glaring omission in his repertoire. Summed up: he’s got most of the tools, but he hasn’t got his toolbox yet. Granted, Nugent-Hopkins seems aware of this shortcoming and, judging by the improvement in the faceoff circle during the game against Nashville (he won 42 per cent) as compared to the game against Vancouver just a few days earlier (a measly 18 per cent), he might become quite competent in this field before the season’s done, too. Of course, he faced better opposition in Vancouver’s faceoff men, too.

This is all very well. But you can bet your last loonie that after the hattrick against Vancouver, the first one of his professional career, 29 teams around the NHL told their video people to get the tape (or DVD) of that particular game pronto, and isolate young Nugent-Hopkins so that coaches can start devising tactics how to stop this budding star. What does this mean? Nothing much, only that Nugent-Hopkins is bound to find the going to get much tougher from now onwards. Goals will stop going in in bushels, his passes will be intercepted, you name it, it’s going to be frustrating.

Nugent-Hopkins will either get nervous, frustrated, even, throwing his arms up in anger, or he will come up with solid answers.

Here’s an example: when Wayne Gretzky saw opposition figured out some of his tricks, he came up with new ones, and when he had a wide enough repertoire, he would start mixing the tricks up, to keep catching the opposition off-guard. His Edmonton Oilers’ former teammate and later, captaincy successor, Mark Messier, had a patented outlet pass from his own zone, not a bad play but, alas, one the opposition figured out. Still, Messier persisted, causing a few unpleasantly dangerous situations for his team in the process.

Of course, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is not Wayne Gretzky. As Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones quoted Rexall Sports’ president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe, Nugent-Hopkins’s playing style reminds him more of Dale Hawerchuk. A smart player, one who didn’t mind getting his nose dirty while operating near his opposition’s goal.

Still, psychologically, Nugent-Hopkins should pick up Gretzky’s ability to creatively change his ways whenever the situation called for it. That is going to be the toughest part of his development.

Now, Nugent-Hopkins has got a smart head on his neck. Just as his last year’s predecessor Taylor Hall has. Judging just by what they said before and after being drafted No. 1, their words didn’t sound like well-rehearsed clichés. In any case, what they said sounded better than Alexandre Daigle’s infamous words, when drafted by the Ottawa Senators in 1993. Remember? He said he was happy to be going as No. 1 because who remembers the No. 2 draftee, anyway? That particular year, No. 2 was Chris Pronger (and Paul Kariya, by the way, went as No. 4). On the day following his first hattrick, Nugent-Hopkins admitted it was exciting, but now, he was looking to get ready for the Nashville game, and anyhow, he’s got this nine-game or bust deal hanging over his head as the sword of Damocles, and besides, what’s a hattrick worth if it didn’t help the team win.

Sounded like a pretty well reasonable man, wise beyond his age, didn’t it?

Still, actions speak louder than words, and – thus far, at least – we’ve been experiencing what’s known as the “novelty effect.”

Will the grind and the increasing one-on-one coverage by other teams’ best defensive crews slow Nugent-Hopkins (and his development) down, or will he use it as a challenge, coming out as the Oilers’ scoring machine for the year?

Nobody knows the future. What we do know is that Taylor Hall, in a fine effort to prove he can play with the adults and be their equal, at least, overextended himself and got injured. An ankle injury stopped his first season as an Oiler at 65 games played. The word “if” is highly unpopular in the theory of games, but: Hall was tied for second in team scoring last year, with 42 points. Could he have got more if he didn’t get injured? Would he have got more if he didn’t get injured? Absolutely yes, on both counts.

Would he (or could he) avoid the season-ending injury if Tom Renney went Craig MacTavish’s way and didn’t play Hall night in and night out? Again: who knows? But, to use simplified statistics, if Hall had played fewer games, the probability of an injury would have been lesser.

Does the same apply to Nugent-Hopkins? Yes, it does, and a full 100 per cent, too.

Professional athletes like playing (running, jumping, whatever their sport). A laudable, praiseworthy, even, approach. Hockey players are no different. And that’s why their teams employ coaching staffs: to tame these young colts to make sure they’re ready when the big race comes.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a player who is exciting to watch. Here’s wishing for his, his club’s and, most importantly, his and his club’s fans’ pleasure that he stays healthy and exciting for as long as possible. Even after the “novelty effect” has worn off.

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