Tag Archives: Taylor Hall

Edmonton Oilers chasing their own tail in a vicious circle

Is loyalty a good thing?

Yes, absolutely, most would say.

Here’s a cynic’s answer: not really. Or, to make it sound at least a tad more acceptable: not always.

And that is Craig MacTavish’s dilemma. He hired Dallas Eakins to be his team’s head coach. The team is not performing. Time for the head coach to go, right? Wrong, says Craig MacTavish.

Well, he’s got it right to the degree that a head coach can only use players his general manager has given him. So: how much blame should the coach take?

The Edmonton Oilers have been in full face-saving mode in recent days. An extended series of losses would do that to a sports team.

One of the club’s stars, Taylor Hall, went public as saying that the players are all behind their coach, and it’s their fault the team finds itself where it does. He’s got it almost perfectly right: it’s the players who are supposed to perform, not the coach. Of course, this approach has got a hitch: if the players don’t play what their coach tells them to play, they are risking benching, scratching and other such measures, anathema to professional athletes each and all of them. And if they do play what the coach tells them to play, and it’s not working, whose fault is it?

The GM goes public blaming himself for his club’s woes.

Of course, that would be that same Craig MacTavish who opened his general managerial era by telling all and sundry he was after bold moves and, since he was impatient, these moves would have to come sooner rather than later.

In all fairness, Craig MacTavish has made quite a few moves. It’s the boldness of these moves that is going to have to remain in the eyes of the beholder. Besides, and this is much more important, when you are changing an entity, and it does not matter what kind of entity, it usually does not begin with any bold moves whatsoever. Here’s the rule: there has to be a sufficient number (or weight) of so-called quantitative changes before their sheer number (or weight) develops into changes known as qualitative.

Have the Oilers reached that stage where one change, no matter how minor, does change the entire picture all of a sudden? Are we getting close to the situation where the Oilers are again a major threat to all and sundry, and it’s no longer a question of whether they win but by how many goals they win?

It doesn’t look like it from the outside looking in, and it does not look thus from the inside, either.

Craig MacTavish is blaming himself. It is one of the honest answers. Except, of course, he must be aware that his owner has expressed his willingness to support him come what may. If that is the case, Craig MacTavish’s honesty is no longer as pure as it seemed to be.

Here’s a cynical recipe for improvement: get rid of the owner, first and foremost. Then, forget about loyalties and clean house.

In the Oilers’ media book, Daryl Katz waxes lyrical about what a perfect fan of the club he’s been throughout his life. True as this statement may be, it’s a perfectly wrong kind of statement. A professional sports club’s owner may be a fan in the pensive silence of his den, but in public, he (or she) must be a businessman (or woman) in the first place. All of such an owner’s decisions must be based on business and nothing else. Loyalty must never enter the picture.

The logic is simple.

Kevin Lowe, a great guy, a smart man with a lot of hockey sense and business savvy, ought to realize that his “best before” label in (and for) this particular market has run out. Lowe would be a great leader in any of the 29 remaining NHL markets, but in Edmonton, he’s got nowhere to go.

Craig MacTavish seems to fit the so-called Peter Principle to a T. Named after Vancouver native, Professor Laurence J. Peter, its basic rule stipulates: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence … in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties … Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

Besides, as Professor Peter put it, “noblest of all dogs is the hot-dog; it feeds the hand that bites it.”

A very good head coach who managed to lead his team within a couple of goals (empty-netters do not count) of the Stanley Cup, Craig MacTavish didn’t go soft in his head overnight, to end up facing so much fan wrath that he himself decided to resign. That was honesty and, come to think of it, loyalty at its best. He wouldn’t bite the hand that fed him by staying on.

One of the substantial definitions coming out of Professor Peter’s book is the definition of ceilings. According to Professor Peter, candidates are being way too often selected based on the performance in their current roles. They should be judged based on abilities that are relevant to their intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”

Has Craig MacTavish reached this level yet, a new MBA or not?

Tough to judge: most of what he does happens behind closed doors, and the information goes only to those who need to know – and it’s “a need-to-know” as defined by none other than Craig MacTavish himself.

Some of the challenges are obvious: Craig MacTavish works in a most competitive environment. No other general manager is going to help him if he can help it. Getting players off the free-agent markets isn’t too easy, either. Why? Simply because it takes two to tango. Even if Craig MacTavish targets precisely the players his club needs, it still doesn’t mean those players would be eager to come to Edmonton. Any number of reasons, just listing them would take a volume thicker than the Bible, but the fact remains: getting the right free agents to sign on the dotted line is no slam dunk.

Is this Craig MacTavish’s fault? Well, not really. Do we know whether a different general manager would get different reactions from free agents? Well, not really.

So what do we know? We know but one thing: the way things are supposed to work just now, they are NOT working.

So, barring the cynical way mentioned above, is there a solution to Edmonton Oilers’ woes?

The answer: yes.

Does anybody at least seem to know the solution and how to implement it?

The answer: no.

Oil Change bids farewell: only to the season? Or to its viewers, too?

Did you know 83 players dressed for the Edmonton Oilers during the last four seasons?

A shocking number or proof that the club’s management has been trying their darndest? Proof they’ve been working hard to find and assemble the best group of people to return the team to the heights it had enjoyed more than two decades ago?

Almost four full rosters, come to think of it!

That’s the question that pops into one’s mind as the last minutes of this season’s Oil Change documentary series roll by. It aired on Sportsnet Sunday, and will see its first series of repeats Monday, with more re-runs to come.

The final minutes show each of the 83 players get a few seconds of fame, with each player’s name and number of games in Oilers’ uniform in subtitles, with music featuring hints of Auld Lang Syne sounding in the background.

If this doesn’t move an Oilers fan’s heart, nothing will.

Except it raises a question. What is it, after all, this elusive chemistry the Oilers’ architects have been trying to find? What is this something that changes a sports club from an also-run into a contender, a champion, even? Is it really chemistry or, Heavens forbid, alchemy? You know, alchemists, the guys with strange beards, wearing extravagant hats, who keep trying to convince their kings and other nobility that they can change worthless raw materials into gold, develop elixirs of love and create potions that would enhance humankind’s longevity beyond any reasonable limits.

Oil Change does not ask these questions openly, but they are there.

This season’s finale begins with a visit with Ryan Smyth in his own, private and personal, trophy room. It contains all kinds of awards he’s won, And he’s won almost everything there’s to win in professional hockey, with one exception: he only got very close to the Stanley Cup once, but never touched it.

As it follows the last few weeks of the season that was, Oil Change’s subjects (players, coaches) see a bit of silver lining in the final weeks’ results and, especially, style of play. Habits, as head coach Dallas Eakins likes to call it. Whether they are right or whether it’s just another round of grasping for straws, only future will tell. And Oil Change deserves praise because it does not succumb to the temptation of becoming a clairvoyant. It only documents what those who should be in the know say and it accompanies it with pictures of what is actually going on even as the words are spoken.

What does it say? Words are nice but they aren’t worth much until and unless action makes them right.

There’s one interesting segment that might deserve a psychologist’s trained eye. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall, two of the team’s brightest-shining stars, have been trying to find similarities and differences that exist between themselves. A fascinating exercise. Whether the two players’ judgments are on the money or not does not matter. What does matter is we can see how they perceive themselves, each other, and the team.

And that’s what Oil Change has been all about since its inception four long seasons ago. It documents who the people behind headlines (and frequent angry speech on Edmonton’s talk shows) are. To use a cliché: what makes the team tick? What is actually behind the infatuation Edmonton Oilers’ fans feel toward their beloved stars? For crying out loud, the fans must feel like jilted lovers again and again. Season after season lacks success, using a milder expression instead of the straightforward failure.

Considering that psychologists have defined infatuation (and early love) as temporary insanity, one can’t but wonder at the Edmonton Oilers fans’ perseverance.

As has been their habit all along, Aquila Productions’ creative crews have again come up with a gem of documentary filmmaking. They use narration words sparingly, depending much more on pictures, in a fast-paced show that reflects to perfection what kind of game hockey is at its top professional level, and who are the people behind it.

This season’s finale ends, as has become traditional with all Oil Change episodes, with the subtitle line: To be continued …

Will it? Should it?

There are several schools of thought.

One that believes that the creators have covered most of the topics that they could cover, and what they would be doing next season would only be repeating what they had been doing the previous years. Differently perhaps, but nothing new under the sun.

And, besides, people who support this grim school of thought would say, it’s always best to quit while you’re still on top.

A jaded view, that. Ask Edmonton Oilers’ fans whether they want the show to continue. Come to think of it, ask fans of good hockey programming, and fans of good documentary filmmaking, too.

If the Oilers continue struggling, only the fact they are struggling would be old. How and why they struggle still, that would be something new.

Another school of thought holds that a hiatus of about a couple of seasons might be worth the wait. This school’s students hope that, following this summer, the Oilers’ roster will be settled for some time to come, with only a bit of space for minor adjustments. Adherents believe that the real change will happen once the Oilers move to the new arena downtown. And that is, they say, when Oil Change should come back.

Yes, physically speaking, it would be a change. Whether it would be as major as some anticipate remains to be seen.

So, what is the answer? What should it be?

Here’s hoping fans (using all kinds of social media) will tell Aquila, the Edmonton Oilers and Sportsnet that they can hardly wait for the new season of Oil Change.

And, here’s hoping, too, that Aquila, the Edmonton Oilers and Sportsnet will not only listen to what the fans are saying, but hear them, too.

Meanwhile, Oil Change, have a wonderful summer vacation, get some much-needed rest, and come back refreshed, tanned, strong, with your batteries recharged and whatnot, for the delight of your fans.

Oil Change closes its season April 20

The times, they are ’a-changin’ … and so are we. If Bob Dylan, the American songwriter, ever thought the idea was his, he could hardly be more wrong. Still, he was right.

What differs is the way we remember changes, no matter how significant or otherwise.

It could be a poem set to music. A song, in other words. A novel of hundreds of pages.

Or, it could be a documentary television series about a professional sports team that shows its viewers that those finely tuned and shaped bodies belong to people with their own minds and emotions.

And that’s what this season’s final installment of Oil Change, the award-winning series about the Edmonton Oilers, will tell us.

It airs on Sportsnet Sunday, April 20, as follows:

  • EAST & ONTARIO – 9 p.m./ET
  • WEST – 9 p.m./MT
  • PACIFIC – 9 p.m./PT

First replays on Monday April 21:

  • EAST & ONTARIO – 12:00 a.m./ET
  • WEST – 12:00 a.m./MT
  • PACIFIC – 12:00 a.m./PT

We can expect more replays on Sportsnet, and on the NHL Network, later on.

With season’s end, it’s time for some reminiscing. In fact, reminiscing helps put matters in perspective.

Let’s begin with this minor fact of major proportions: compared to the same point last year, more than half of this season’s roster has changed. General manager Craig McTavish did, after all, promise that there would be changes galore under his command.

He has been as good as his word, and this installment of Oil Change is documenting it in considerable detail.

Thanks, Smytty

With Ryan Smyth announcing his retirement after all these years, a behind-the-scenes tour of the memory-filled trophy room in Nr. 94’s home delivers a meaning all of his teammates, past and current should remember. Come to think of it, Smyth’s future teammates would do well to keep it in mind, too: he’ll remain an Oiler no matter what, it’s in his blood.

Taylor Hall, captain Andrew Ference, several other key players and MacTavish share some candid and insightful final reflections on this season and next.

A retrospective look at all those who’ve donned an Oilers jersey in the past four seasons of Oil Change forms another chapter of this season’s finale.

This episode starts where the previous one ended: at the trade deadline. Oiler veteran Ales Hemsky (the team’s first-round draft pick in 2003) is gone. So is veteran blueliner Nick Schultz. They were traded to Ottawa and Columbus, respectively, for draft picks. Victor Fasth arrives from Anaheim, to share the goaltending load with Ben Scrivens.

Just to make sure nobody forgets it, fate deals the Oilers a few more blows. Ryan Jones, Jesse Joensuu, Anton Belov, Andrew Ference and Nail Yakupov are all out of the line-up. Injured. One and all.

There are reinforcements coming up from AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons. Anton Lander, Tyler Pitlick and Will Acton get return trips to Edmonton, while rookie defenceman Oscar Klefbom makes his long-awaited NHL debut and quickly shows he’s not out of his depth up in Edmonton. Except: the OKC Barons are in a tough battle to secure one of the final AHL playoff spots, and the call-ups don’t help he Oilers’ farmers much.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Oil Change will deal with the memories of this season, one that can be called – without any exaggeration – season from hell.

See you in front of your TV Sunday night.

Who’s out when Ales Hemsky returns to the fold?

Now what?

With Ales Hemsky’s imminent return to the Edmonton Oilers’ lineup, who should draw the short straw?

The original deal saw Hemsky playing alongside Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth, an old-line revival that was expected to click forthwith and help the club along to new heights.

Then came the unfortunate shoulder strain, and a pretty wise decision to give it time to heal and rest: it was the same shoulder that underwent a bit of major surgery just a few months ago, after all.

So, in drew Ryan Jones, and guess what? The line hasn’t missed a beat. Yes, yes, yes, some fans might be saying the line would be scoring more with Hemsky on it. At the same time, there might be another school of thought that would say, no, Hemsky would only slow this line down, they wouldn’t have been as successful as they have been with him as they are without him.

And then, there’s the realistic school of thought: the Edmonton Oilers have been on a pretty good winning streak with Hemsky on the sidelines. How can you start fixing something that ain’t broken? Trade the guy? Are you kidding? Well, if, say, Pittsburgh offered James Neal and Jordan Staal, perhaps? Or if Tampa sent Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier Edmonton’s way? Nonsense on both counts.

But seriously, look at Edmonton’s forwards: do you find ANY who deserve to be sent up to the press box (or down to Oklahoma City) so Hemsky finds his way back?

Say you demote Ryan Jones by a line to accommodate Nr. 83. Ooops, can’t be done: why mess with the kid trio of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle? One more line down? For crying out loud, there’s not enough space to accommodate Linus Omark, if only to play him alongside his countryman Magnus Paajarvi, and how about Sam Gagner? How about Anton Lander? A defensive forward gem. Ben Eager? The Oilers need the grit, especially with Darcy Hordichuk still injured. How about Lennart Petrell? Another forward who knows how to defend. The Oilers need him, a very useful guy.

See the dilemma?

And that’s not all. Once Hemsky returns and Tom Renney will have to decide at whose expense he does so, will it not upset the applecart known as emotional and psychological relationships, ties, likes and dislikes within the group a.k.a. the Edmonton Oilers? Nobody knows, not even Tom Renney.

And yet, decide he will have to, and soon.

Many coaches around the NHL might be looking at this situation with envy: what kind of riches, eh? Yet, as we know, it’s a very fine line between riches and the poorhouse in the world of professional sports. Yes, the Oilers have put together an impressive series. But now that the rodeo is in town, and the Oilers are out of town, we’ll see how they handle their newly found swagger.

Besides, remember, everybody will be gunning for them: how dare the upstarts, 30th in the league for two years running, sit on top of their division, thumbing their noses at the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild, making them look as also-runs? And, too, we all know that the Oilers’ record against their own division is far from perfect.

And into all this, Ales Hemsky is chomping at the bit.

It’s going to be a tough call, no doubt about that. Aaah, another few gray hairs on Tom Renney’s head. And a nose or two out of joint on the roster.

Oil Change sets a new standard, and it’s pretty high

As the Oil Change series goes, this one takes the cake.

Broadcast Friday night on CityTV, to be repeated Sunday at 11 p.m. on Sportsnet West, this season’s first installment, titled Overdrive, begins where the last season’s Oil Change ended: at the end of last season.

A lot has happened between then and now, and this season’s opener takes us on an incredible journey, looking at the twists and turns and turning points we, mere mortals, wouldn’t have seen and known without this show.

Aquila Productions’ people, creators of Oil Change, have obviously won a lot of confidence from the Oilers. The club now knows they have never abused this confidence, shown in unprecedented access to what is going on behind the scenes.

Just a few examples: we witness a serious between-you-and-me-and-the-lamppost conversation between general manager Steve Tambellini and his chief scout, Stu MacGregor. The topic: why the chief scout is of the view that the club’s Number 1 draft selection has got to be Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and nobody else. The train of thought in and of itself is interesting, but the fact Oil Change people were privy to the conversation to the extent they could record it and broadcast it, now, this is perfectly surprising.

A conversation between Steve Tambellini and last year’s No. 1, Taylor Hall, during the draft, in which the top pooh-bah explains his strategy to his rising star, is an eyeopener, too.

This season, there was an unusual twist of fortune for Oil Change creators: three of former Oilers’ kids got drafted that day, too. Frank Musil’s son David went to the Oilers as No. 21, Kevin Lowe’s son Keegan went to Carolina as No. 73, and Craig Simpson’s son Dillon stays home in Edmonton at No. 92. To see these former greats as happy dads rather than as hockey professionals made for pretty good television.

We saw team brass negotiating about potential free agency deals last year, too, but that was from a bit of a distance. This time, we get as close as possible to seeing (and hearing) how the team managed to land Eric Belanger and Darcy Hordichuk.

And we saw that Steve Tambellini is about much more than just finding players and signing them, or trading them, or trading for them, or sending them down to the minors, or calling them up. Remember the incident in an exhibition game in Minnesota where Taylor Fedun broke his leg trying to chase the puck for an icing call? An Oil Change camera caught Tambellini standing alone in a corridor, talking to someone on his cell phone, confirming that young Fedun would be staying in the Minnesota hospital a few days before being allowed to fly back to Edmonton, and then telling whoever was on the other end of the call to please make sure the Oilers bring Fedun’s parents down so they can be with their son at this difficult time. Now, that was a touch of humanity if there ever was one. And, unlike such would-be reality shows like Survivor, this wasn’t staged or rehearsed. This happened. In real life.

There are more such moments in this version of Oil Change.

From a professional point of view, one of the things that catch the eye is the ability of the show’s creators to adjust the pace of the story they’re showing on the screen to the story they are telling. Face-paced where the story calls for it, they don’t hesitate to go for longer takes and slower cuts in spots where viewers deserve (and need) to get enough time to be able to absorb what they see on the screen.

And, as is usual for great television, they let the pictures do the talking, rather than overwhelming their viewers with too much commentary. So far as the sound is concerned, reality and great (but not overwhelming) music selections should suffice. They do.

What comes across loud and clear is the Oilers’ coaching staff’s basic philosophy. Head coach Tom Renney sounds like a teacher, one of those types who insist they’re strict but fair. Players might agree with the strictness part but, some of them, at least, might be (privately) inclined to raise an eyebrow or two about the fairness part. Especially those who think they deserve more ice time, or they don’t deserve to be healthy scratches, never mind being demoted.

In his first speech to the troops as the main training camp opens, Renney tells the assembled 70-plus hopefuls to remember that if they think that good enough is good enough, they’re terribly wrong.

And, during a drill in practice, Renney tells a player he mustn’t be surprised by anything at all. He must be ready for anything and everything.

That says it all, doesn’t it?

This season’s opener for Oil Change has set the bar pretty high. It’s a great documentary, unbelievably good television, and the Oilers should be counting their lucky stars to have this talented Aquila Productions group on their side.

Oil Change about to hit the airwaves

Popular documentary’s second-season opener to appear Friday on CityTV, Sunday on Sportsnet West

Oiler fans, this is a reminder: at 8 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 21, turn your television sets on, click all the way to CityTV, and watch. This season’s Oil Change is about to begin. If you can’t make it on Friday, turn to Sportsnet West on Sunday, Oct. 23, at 11 p.m. This is the lone occasion for such a late start: major league baseball’s World Series airs right before Oil Change.

Ah, baseball. The best non-toxic replacement for sleeping pills. Especially when compared to hockey, the fastest team game on earth.

The documentary series caused a splash last season, taking hockey fans behind the scenes to show how a professional hockey club goes about re-building a once famous franchise back to its glory. The fast-paced series showed us almost everything. From the internal debates regarding whom the Oilers should select with their first overall draft pick (remember the arguments? Taylor or Tyler?) through their occasional ups and more frequent downs, with everything in between.

It didn’t waste too many words, relying on the power of pictures, instead. It was unbelievably creative in its music selections, something the show’s executive producer (and the boss of Aquila Productions, and the Oilers’ director of broadcast) Don Metz is very particular about.

Oil Change has found an almost cult-like following, seen as it was both in Canada (on TSN) and in the U.S., through the NHL Network.

Why the change of venue?

Simple. TSN is going all out to help the renewed Winnipeg Jets by broadcasting 60 of their games, while Sportsnet has committed to broadcasting 60 of the Oilers’ games. The switch, then, was perfectly logical.

Still, it’s going to be the same crew that’s going to give us this season’s series, meaning that the quality will remain as high as last season’s – if not even higher. After all, experience counts for something. And, considering this Aquila crew has been around for quite a while, no need to fear the proverbial sophomore jinx.

So, remember, Oil Change is back on. Its backstage access will give you ammunition for reasoning why your beloved club has done this and not that. It will make you better-informed fans. It will entertain you, too.

Now, what can be better?

Happy viewing!

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.