Size doesn’t matter.
“You look at the mystery around this kid, as to whether he was even going to play this year, or should he,” said head coach Tom Renney. “Coming in and doing what he’s doing has certainly been impressive.”
He isn’t getting bullied. He isn’t getting pushed off the puck. He isn’t being man-handled.
“It was a big step, definitely, though,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who wins more puck battles than he loses, thanks to the quick hands and an ability to think one chess step ahead of the next guy.
“Guys are bigger and stronger and hit harder, but once I got adjusted to that and started to get used to it and feel more comfortable out there … I don’t think I’ve been pushed around too much this year.”
Not that the other guys haven’t tried. There have been nights when he might as well have been wearing a bulls-eye instead of 93.
“There have been games where they come out a little harder than other teams, like Dallas,” he said. “I got hit about three or four times on the first shift.”
He responded by scoring the only Oilers goal of the game and knocking Brenden Morrow on his butt, and out of the Stars lineup, with a hit of his own.
It’s like prison, you can’t show the other guys weakness or they’ll prey on it the rest of your sentence.
“I think that’s actually pretty important,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “Being a smaller guy I don’t think that I can show that I’m going to be pushed around. I have to push back and keep playing.”
Morrow is out with an upper body injury and after the hit Dallas colour commentator Daryl Reaugh called Nugent-Hopkins “the greatest 11-year-old to ever play in the NHL.”
“He came to hit me and I saw him coming at the last second. and just stepped into him a little bit,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “It might have caught him a little off guard.”
Renney, who waited, to everyone’s growing frustration, until all nine games of RNH’s audition were up before announcing the decision to keep him all year, said he specifically wanted to see him against a couple of big tough lineups.
“As time went on, especially the last couple of games when it was Vancouver and Washington, big strong teams, he held his own here,” he said. “And he popped Morrow pretty good the other night. One guy kept playing that night and the other guy didn’t. It certainly tells you that he’s got good balance, he’s strong on his feet and he’s got that innate ability to know what’s going on around him, which is obviously very helpful to someone’s health.”
So here he is, a point per-gamer in a league where a 50-point rookie season is considered success.
“I don’t have any specific individual goals,” he said. “For the team I want to make the playoffs, that’s the only thing I’m really striving for right now.”
Normally, rookies start slowly and pick up speed as they gain confidence and experience. If a point per game is starting slowly for him, then what happens when he hits full speed? Are we talking 100 points here, the kind of totals Crosby and Ovechkin put up as rookies?
“I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it too much,” he said. “If that does happen and things keep on going well, if I get even better, then I’ll be excited about that.
“As the year goes on I’ll probably start to develop more chemistry with the players and that might help out quite a bit, but I guess we’ll just have to see what happens.”