Nugent-Hopkins happy

Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins skates against the Coyotes at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alta.,...

Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins skates against the Coyotes at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alta., Sep. 27, 2011. (PERRY NELSON/QMI Agency)

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:11 AM ET

EDMONTON - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins left the ice after practice and started packing his hockey bag with each piece of equipment for his first-ever overnight trip to Jasper.

“What do you know? What have they told you?” he was asked by the first media man to his dressing room stall.

“They haven’t told me anything. All they told me is that I’m going to Jasper.”

Despite the fact when the Edmonton Oilers made the final cuts on Sunday leaving them with four healthy centres and that Nugent-Hopkins was one of them, GM Steve Tambellini would confirm nothing beyond “he’s going to Jasper.”

It seemed obvious Nugent-Hopkins would be playing the opener Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins and that he’d get to play the first nine games permissible before he would become ineligible to return to junior.

It was like the Oiler brain trust was having a hard time getting the words out until head coach Tom Renney finally made it official.

“Ryan will be starting the season with us,” he said.

“We all understand the parameters there, that he can operate here before we have to make a concrete decision on the season. Again, we’ll do it a game at a time. But he had a very good camp.”

Finally Hoppy was allowed to be happy.

“I definitely am excited,” he said. “It’s going to be my first NHL regular-season game so I couldn’t be more excited. I’m just happy for the opportunity.

“I can’t get too high. I can’t let the emotions of this get the best of me. I’m very happy so far with the way things have gone. But this isn’t my goal. My goal is to actually make the team.”

Renney said he’s not going to pick his spots with RNH going forward. It’s live bullets time now.

“I’m going to play him.

“This is about two points now.

“I expect Ryan will be an important contributor to our needs every night.”

So having seen Nugent-Hopkins answer most of the questions with exclamation marks, including leading the team in scoring in the preseason, handling the responsibilities in his own end of the rink and handling the odd hit here and there, what are Renney’s expectations from the kid in live play-’em-for-keeps games against real NHLers trying hard?

“I don’t know if I have any,” he said.

“I want to see him make his line better when he’s on the ice against another NHL line. But I’m realistic, too. And I’m excited by it.”

The dilemma for the Oilers is that the history in playing kids at this age instead of sending them back to junior has hurt more than helped. It’s virtually impossible to find a case where holding a young talent back has hurt.

There are a couple of extenuating circumstances with the Oilers beyond that.

And there’s the idea that it wouldn’t hurt RNH if Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, Linus Omark and the other kids had another year to grow into the NHL before he started playing with them.

But then there’s the other thing. They’re trying to create an organization where there’s competition to work your way up to the team and into prime positions on the team.

And RNH earned it. He was the leading scorer in the preseason, handled himself exceptionally well at both ends of the rink, had no real problem with the lack of meat on his 6-foot-0 frame and, once Sam Gagner was out, left the Oilers little option.

“Training camp was good for me. I feel a little more confident now that I made it this far. I think the preseason got me ready for this,” said Nugent-Hopkins.

“Now I’ve got nine games and that will give me a really good opportunity to show I can play. I’m going to do everything I can to make the team.

“I tried to make it as hard a decision as possible about sending me back as I could make it for them. I’m going to take the same attitude into the actual NHL games now. Once again I’m going to try to make it as hard as possible for them to send me back.”

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terry.jones@sunmedia.ca


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