SUN Hockey Pool

Top picks ready to roll: RNH

Edmonton Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hits Detroit Red Wings' Niklas Kronwall during the first...

Edmonton Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hits Detroit Red Wings' Niklas Kronwall during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Edmonton Feb. 4, 2012. (REUTERS/Dan Riedlhuber)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:26 AM ET

Ready or not, here he comes.

Actually, scratch the “or not” part. He’s ready.

Whoever the Edmonton Oilers spend the first pick on — forward, defenceman, Russian, North American, big or small — he’ll be ready to play.

Right out of the box. No assembly required.

The days of having to send the best player in junior back to junior, and then maybe the minors, before he’s good enough for the NHL are over.

There will be the annual questions about whether he’d be better served by another year in junior, like there were with Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but he’ll make the team and he’ll be good. That’s just the way it is now

Twelve of the last 13 skaters selected first overall (defenceman Erik Johnson, drafted out of high school, spent a year in college hockey) stepped right in.

“I think it’s just become more of a speed game now,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who wasn’t, according to many educated doubters, big or strong enough to play in the league.

“You don’t have to be a huge guy or physically mature. I think lots of the young guys coming in are really fast and quick.

“And the big thing is just being smart enough to know how to play the game. As a young guy you’re going to be smaller, so you don’t want to put yourself in bad positions. As long as you’re smart you can manage your game that way.”

And expectations, said Gabriel Landeskog, second overall in 2011, are higher now. The top guys know, two years ahead of their draft, that it’s no longer a pleasant surprise if they make the jump — they’re supposed to make it.

With that kind of pressure, and with multi-million dollar contracts serving as a pretty nice incentive, they train harder, eat better and are exposed to vastly superior coaching and preparation than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

“The junior leagues are getting better and better,” said Landeskog. “And with so many first-round picks coming in and making a real push, all the other top picks really want to do the same. They don’t want to be the guy who doesn’t make the team.

“I know, personally, I wanted to make the (Avalanche). There was a lot of talk about me being ready, but I wanted to show myself and everyone around me that I was.”

Most times, the top picks are more NHL-ready than the teams they go to. It’s not often a Stanley Cup contender like Boston gets a second overall like Tyler Seguin.

The best of the best usually wind up on doormats like Edmonton, Columbus or the Islanders.

It’s up to them to make the team better more than vice versa. They’re cool with that, having been on-ice leaders their whole lives.

“You don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself, everything to be on your shoulders,” said Landeskog. “But you dream about being an impact player, being one of the guys who’s trusted in different situations.

“That’s something you want to cherish and take advantage of, and when you do get the ice time and the trust from the coach, you want to make sure you deserve it and show the people that you can be counted on.”

Nugent Hopkins says being able to walk in the still-fresh footsteps of Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall helped his transition enormously.

“Getting drafted to Edmonton really helped me out,” he said. “They have so many young guys who really made things easier for me.

“For me, the big thing is trying to learn something new every day. Guys who’ve been around the league a long time, I try take in as much from them as I can. And guys like Eberle and Hall really helped me out because they went through last year what I went through this year.”

His goal wasn’t to be one of the best players on the team, it just sort of worked out that way, you know, because of all that world-class skill.

“My main goal at the start was just to make the team,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “After I did that I just wanted to help out as much as I could.”

Follow me on TWITTER.com/SUN_TYCHKOWSKI

ROBERT.TYCHKOWSKI@Sunmedia.ca


Videos

Photos