October 24, 2012
Oilers centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins stronger, quicker on the draw
By TERRY JONES, QMI Agency
OKLAHOMA CITY - You watch Ryan Nugent-Hopkins play three games here and it takes until the third game for it to hit home that there's something different about the guy.
And maybe it was because it took until the third game here, his fifth of the season as an AHL minor leaguer, for it to all come together for him.
"I'm glad he came to the party Tuesday night," laughed coach Todd Nelson of RNH scoring two goals and adding an assist in a first-star performance to lead the Edmonton Oilers farm club to a 4-3 win over the Lake Erie Monsters.
But what was different wasn't the two goals. Or the assist.
It was that he was winning faceoffs.
It was that he was playing a much more physical game.
Nugent-Hopkins was a finalist at the NHL Awards for the Calder as Rookie of the Year after his 18-goal, 52-point season in 62 games played last year.
But his faceoff percentage was a dreadful 37.5.
The Nuge ended up ranked 413th in the league.
"I'm surprised I was that high," he said after practice Wednesday, when he was one of the last players off the ice after working with assistant coach Rocky Thompson on draws.
The Nuge was 17-6 on the dot the night before.
You can't look this up because the AHL doesn't track faceoffs, ice time or fancy stats like that. It's up to the clubs to do it on their own.
"We have him at 50-41 and 54.9% for the season so far," said Nelson.
"I know it's one of the things he really wanted to work on. He sat down in my office and told me ÔI want to work on my draws' at the start of the season. He's out there after every practice. And he's coming in to watch video. He made a lot of changes and has been doing a little experimenting. It's just now that it's really starting to show."
He is, of courses, going against minor leaguers.
It probably wouldn't be over 50% against NHLers.
Then again, by the time he starts playing against NHLers again É
"Last year I really struggled in the faceoff circle," said the 19-year-old former Red Deer Rebel.
"It was a goal of mine at the end of the season to come back and take a lot more pride in it."
Nugent-Hopkins is a bright kid. And he figures if there's going to be a lockout and he's going to have to spend a significant part of the season as a member of the Oklahoma Barons, he might as well use it for all it's worth.
"I came here with the attitude this was an opportunity for me to get better in a lot of areas. Especially faceoffs," he said.
"I've been working on strategy, technique and quickness."
He's not in a graduate program yet because he hasn't started to work on cheating, but É
"After ever practice Rocky drops pucks for me or goes against me," he said.
"We're trying different things," said Thompson. "Timing, for one thing. In some situations he's taking the faceoffs right handed on the right side dot so he can get more leverage.
"He put on a pretty strong performance Tuesday night, for sure. It's now really starting to show some results."
The other part, the way he's adding a physical component to his game is, perhaps, something the No. 1 pick overall in the 2011 draft didn't necessarily come here with the intention of making as big a part of his self-improvement program as it looked in the win against a Lake Erie team that plays hard and really comes at you.
"In our first game on the road against Lake Erie, they played him really hard. They knocked him down a few times. I think he said ÔEnough'," Nelson added.
"It's hit or be hit," said Nugent-Hopkins.
"I'm not throwing huge hits. But I'm playing the body. I'm going to the greasy areas. I'd like to play that way."
This is a kid who people were worried was going to look more like a goal post than somebody who would be bumping players around in front of the goal post.
"I put on 10 pounds in the off-season. I think I'm stronger and fitter. I had a new off-season training program. I wasn't overdoing anything," said the 6-foot, now 185-pound centre.
"I see a young man who is here working very hard to be the most complete player he can be," said Nelson.
"I think he's stronger than last year. He's strong in the corners for a guy who doesn't have a mature man's build yet. He comes out with the puck.
"The defensive things we have to work on, but he's very smart with the puck and has a good stick. When he loses the puck, he's quick to retrieve it."
Nugent-Hopkins's two Oilers teammates and linemates, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, see the change in him, too.
"He looks a lot beefier in the dressing room," said Eberle.
"He just looks stronger."
His right winger said The Nuge has come here with a great attitude.
"There are parts of the game he wants to work on. He's been doing it here. And as he works on the things he works on, well, success at those things comes with confidence."
Hall, who has spent the week practising with the team without wearing the bring yellow no-contact jersey, has sat in the stands watching The Nuge play with an eye to returning from his shoulder surgery to start playing on the left side of the line with RNH and Eberle as early as next week.
"This is a different game in the AHL," said the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft.
"You have to be gritty. Once you get a little physical you can let the skill come out.
"I've really been noticing he's been finishing his checks.
"He's a year older. He's put on a little weight. That's not a bad thing to have happen to him. People didn't give him enough credit last year for going into corners. When you have three skilled guys on a line, someone has to do that work in one situation or another.
"And when it comes to faceoffs, you only get better by taking them.
"Sidney Crosby was only 38% in his first year in the league. Now he's one of the best in the league."
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