CALGARY - It is in Brent Sutter’s interests in more ways than one if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins goes back to Red Deer.
First of all, if RNH isn’t in Edmonton, Calgary has a better chance of beating the Oilers. Secondly, Sutter owns the Red Deer Rebels, where the 18-year-old would report if the NHL tryout thing doesn’t work.
Most everyone believes Nugent-Hopkins, who had a pretty quiet night by his standards on Tuesday, has an NHL job by the throat, but Sutter says the nine-game trial isn’t over till it’s over.
“He’s a phenomenal player and Edmonton’s got time with him to make decisions,” Sutter told the Calgary Sun. “Each game is going to get tougher and tougher because of the recognition you put upon yourself because of the way you play — and he’s obviously played well.”
When pressed, Sutter admits the kid is almost certainly staying, and will adapt well if he does.
“He’s a very level-headed young man. He handles everything really well — very grown, very mature for his age,” Sutter said. “I’m happy for him. He’s a good young man, he’s a great young man, and that’s what makes him unique, too.
“Special player, special kid.”
FLAMES FANS NERVOUS
The Battle of Alberta is not a battle anymore. Hasn’t been in a decade. And heading into Tuesday night it hasn’t even really been close.
The Flames are 32-12-4 against Edmonton since the start of the 2003-04 NHL season and have won 12 of the last 13 games.
But there is an uneasiness in Calgary as Flames fans, watching their team get older and slower and farther from a championship by the year, look up north and see a fast and dangerous Oilers rebuild that has the entire NHL talking.
The Flames rather shaky start isn’t calming the nerves in Cowtown.
“Obviously we haven’t had the start we’d like to,” said Sutter. “But we have an opportunity to get our game in order and be consistent in how we want to play. That includes everybody - we need to have a team effort and play a team game.”
If you don’t have a good quarterback, your receivers might as well be wearing boxing gloves for all the TD passes they’re going to get.
So it’s with great anticipation that the Oilers got their QB back Tuesday. After sitting out since last December with an ankle injury, Ryan Whitney, Edmonton’s most important player last year, is back.
His ability to retrieve the puck, then turn and make the crisp breakout pass will make an excellent crop of forwards that much better.
Eventually. But in the meantime, as he eases his way back into NHL game shape, expectations are rather modest.
“For me this is kind of a training camp unfortunately,” said Whitney, who showed significnat rust in his return Tuesday. “But I also think that I can still help the team. Get the puck out of my end and basically do some little things that will help our team win. It’s not going to be anything fantastic to start, I’m sure.”
While the Oilers were battling the Flames, Hall flew back to Edmonton to battle the flu. It had been coming on for a day or so - although you’d never know it from the way he played Monday against Nashville - and finally got the best of him Tuesday.
Flames goaie Miikka Kiprusoff’s win over Montreal moved him into the franchise lead for wins by a Flames goalie, 263. Former Flames keeper Mike Vernon was on hand to help with the pre-game presentation.
Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, the 6-2, 215-pound winger played his first game for Calgary Tuesday. He’s here to provide a physical spark for a team that’s a lot easier to play against now that Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr are gone, and he’s happy to oblige.
“It’s a team game, you don’t want to rely on one player to score all the goals, or one player to stop all the plays,” he said. “But if I can help the team and bring some energy I’m going to do my best to bring it.”