Sunday, August 7, 2011

On Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Red vs. White

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was cut from Team Canada's World Junior Championship selection camp last December after failing to make a good impression with coaches. This year, coming into the summer development camp he vowed to assert himself more and to make better on last year's performance. So far Nugent-Hopkins has done just that by demonstrating his high end skills during the drills and scrimmages, and then topping it off with a game breaking performance at last night's intrasquad matchup in front of his home crowd.

For the most part of last night's Red vs. White game, Nugent-Hopkins was rather quite offensively while his linemate Devante Smith-Pelly put on dominating performance. It may have been the nerves of playing in front Oilers fans at Rexall Place for the first time as a member of the Oilers or perhaps a bit of mid summer rust in his game, but the chances weren't coming as easy as they usually do in the offensive zone. Despite the slow start, Nugent-Hopkins was still able to get into the game by winning faceoffs, something we didn't see much of from him when he was here last playing against the Oil Kings in the WHL playoffs, and getting in on the forecheck and penalty kill. His puck pursuit and quick feet were evident on the forecheck and in his own zone, and he demonstrated his ability to separate opposing players from the puck a number of times throughout the game. But still, for the first 55 minutes of the game, the offensive brilliance that Oilers fans were expecting to see was a bit lacking.

However like skilled players so often do, when Nugent-Hopkins finally got his opportunity he buried it. With his team down by one late in the third, Nugent-Hopkins got in on a rush and managed to find a loose rebound and put it away with a beautiful spin-a-rama backhand. The goal definitely gave him a shot of confidence and just a few minutes later he showed off his quick hands and quick release and scored the game winner with 20 seconds left in the game.

While it wasn't a dominating game by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins last night, Oilers fans got a glimpse of what he can still do when the bounces aren't going his way, a scenario that is guaranteed to appear for a rookie in the NHL if he makes the team this year. Considering it was only an exhibition, the game had a decent pace and the players certainly didn't shy away from the physical play, which was perhaps not surprising when there are 47 players battling for 22 spots on the tournament roster. Nugent-Hopkins didn't look outmatched physically by any means, but of course the opposition was fellow junior players and doesn't really give any indication of how he'll perform in the NHL. It was good to see though that the additional 10 pounds he has put on his frame since the draft didn't seem to affect his speed, which is such an asset to his game. It's still unclear whether Nugent-Hopkins will even be available to play for Team Canada this December, but his showing last night certainly didn't disappoint Oilers fans and helped add to the growing excitement here in Oil Country.

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