February 24, 2012
The return of Nugent-Hopkins
By TERRY JONES, QMI Agency
It'll be a different Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who returns to the line-up today for the Edmonton Oilers.
When he left he was 6 feet tall.
He's returning at 6-foot-1.
The Nuge apparently grew an inch while he was gone.
"Well, I don't know about a whole inch," said the 18-year-old.
"But they wrote down 6 foot when they measured me at training camp and this time they wrote down 6-foot-1."
Added two pounds, too.
"I came in at 174. Today I was 176.
"I guess I've grown a little bit. I talked to a lot of guys who said they grew a little bit after they were 18 or 19 -- filled out a bit."
After missing 20 games with two shoulder injuries, Nugent-Hopkins has been cleared to complete the final 22 games of the season.
And the new 6-foot-1 176-pound rookie returned to actual applause from his teammates.
You don't see that every day.
"That made me feel pretty good," he said.
It went down like this:
Prior to the start of practice, Nugent-Hopkins took 'The U Test.'
The rules were different the second time around for the kid who used to answer to the name 'Hoppy' than others who have taken Tom Renney's renowned fitness drop-off test to get back in the lineup.
This time there was only one passing grade -- 100%.
When The Nuge was done, and had passed -- cleared to be part of a full-contact practice and return to action for Saturday's 2 p.m. game against the Phoenix Coyotes, something strange happened.
The team, arriving on the ice to participate in Renney's first practice since he removed himself from proceedings due to a concussion resulting from taking a puck to the head in Toronto, applauded the kid.
"At first I thought it was more of a joke. But they know how tough a drill it is," said Nugent-Hopkins.
By the end of practice, though, it was back to normal.
First on the ice, RNH was last off the ice.
He had to go down to the net and pick up the pucks, put them in the plastic milk crate and bring them back to the bench.
"Every practice," he said.
"Me and all the rookies."
Renney, who was also pronounced good to return behind the bench Saturday, didn't speak about RNH and his 100% passing of the test this time. He ran the practice, then left Millennium Place in Sherwood Park alone, leaving associate coach Ralph Krueger to handle the possible headache-inducing media scrum.
"Anybody watching the skate today saw he was putting a lot of pucks in the net," observed Krueger of RNH.
"He feels very strong. He's feeling better than he did coming off this injury the last time. He feels 100% where last time you had that feeling he wasn't quite there yet. Ninety-seven per cent wasn't going to cut it this time. His mind is in a good space and we're excited to see him back in the lineup.
"There's no question the first contacts will be watched closely and he'll be feeling what it does to his body. There's nothing that takes the place of getting back in the game. You can practise as hard as you want and do all the off ice stuff. But once you are up against the top defencemen of the other team "¦ he'll have a good test.
"But he's such a smart player, I don't think we have to be afraid. He knows how to position himself. It's difficult for people to hit him because he reads the game so well, with and without the puck. I think this is a one-off situation. He doesn't look like an injury-prone type of player to me from the way he plays the game," added Krueger.
Hopkins, who missed a dozen games when he first injured the shoulder, missed six more, will return sitting fifth in Oilers scoring with 13 goals and 35 points, four fewer than Ryan Smyth and five back of Sam Gagner.
He also returns six points back of Adam Henrique of the New Jersey Devils in the rookie scoring race.
"I feel really good," he said.
"I've had some direct contact and it felt fine. I haven't tweaked it in a long time. It's not getting sore after I shoot or anything like that. It might take a couple shifts to get my legs going, but I don't want to have that happen. I want to get into the game right away if I can."
Get the kid an early power play and that should do it.
Follow me on Twitter.com/sunterryjones