PENTICTON, B.C. - The Edmonton Oilers were never going to rush Taylor Hall into the NHL, but when management stared at a freshly gutted 30th place team in training camp, saw zero star quality and no chance for a playoff spot, the underlying mood was pretty clear:
“Please, please, please, God, let Taylor be good enough to make it so we can have something worth watching this year!”
Fortunately for Oilers fans, Hall delivered. Made the team. Gave the long-suffering fans something to watch and get excited about.
So did Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi.
Now, with one successful rebuilding year in the books and a handful of free-agent signings brought in to replace those members of the old guard lost in the purge, it is an entirely different situation for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins than it was for Hall.
Fact is, they don’t need him like they needed Hall.
“We don’t need to add more young players to the roster right now,” said general manager Steve Tambellini, before the Oilers wrapped up the Young Stars Tournament and flew home for the start of main camp on Saturday. “It’s nice to have that option, but for players such as Hopkins, if he plays for us this year, great. If he doesn’t until next year, that’s great, too. I’m happy with that and he understands that.”
Adding another talented teenager, even if he’s the first pick overall, would be a luxury, not a necessity. There’s enough marquee value with the three sophomores and Ryan Smyth, and enough rookies sniffing for jobs in Teemu Hartikainen, Colten Teubert, Jeff Petry and Anton Lander, that they can afford to be patient with the Red Deer Rebels centre.
Maybe even ask themselves, “What would Detroit do?”
“I’m sure Ryan has come to this camp to play for this team, and that’s the way it should be,” said Tambellini. “But from an organizational standpoint, we’ve made it very clear to him that you just be yourself and see what happens.”
Of course, Nugent-Hopkins could also walk in and make the decision for them. In two games against Vancouver and Winnipeg prospects, he’s been excellent, playing the kind of slick and imaginative, one-step-ahead-of-everyone-else hockey that made him No.1
“We’re going to have to see Ryan right through training camp and see what he looks like in an NHL game with NHL players,” said Tambellini. “But we’ve seen flashes of creativity here that a lot of people don’t have. Some cross ice passes to people who are not aware that the puck is coming. That’s special. He’s a lot stronger than what he appears to be in terms of strength on the puck. He’s very competitive.“
While there is less pressure on Nugent-Hopkins to make the jump than there was for Hall, the kid doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
He wants to be an Oiler. Now.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can in the next few weeks and see what happens.
“It’s my first NHL main camp so I’m just very excited to get out there and start playing with some of the vets, getting in there playing against and with some of the vets will be really fun.
“I’m definitely going to be a little bit nervous going into it on Saturday, but for the most part I’ve got my legs under me now. This tournament was really good at preparing me for that.
“It’s the first time I got to wear the Oilers colours. Just doing that was awesome.”
Is he ready to wear them for good? Even Nugent-Hopkins doesn’t know.
“I don’t think it’s far enough in to tell yet.”