Ryan Nugent Hopkins still looks like a kid out there, especially with that cage protecting his face after two front teeth were pushed back when the Burnaby native was clipped by a stick two weeks ago. And while the gifted centre is a tempting target for AHL opposition while playing for the Oklahoma City Barons during the NHL lockout, he’s also on Hockey Canada’s radar.
Should the lockout persist, Nugent-Hopkins could anchor the first line at Team Canada’s world junior tournament selection camp Dec. 10-15 in Calgary to prepare for the event in Ufa, Russia. The camp roster will be named Dec. 3 and after being one of the final cuts last year, the 19-year-old Edmonton Oilers playmaker believes international exposure could accelerate his learning curve, just like it did for linemates Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, who are also playing for the Barons during the lockout.
“If it comes up, I’m definitely going to talk about it more,” Nugent-Hopkins said Saturday. “Eberle had great success there and so did Taylor and they’re two good guys to talk about that sort of thing. If I do get that opportunity, it’s something I would take because it’s always an honour to play for Canada.”
At the 2010 under-18 world tournament, Nugent-Hopkins had the game-winning goal in a gold-medal triumph over the U.S. and finished with five goals in five games. The following year he was selected first overall in the NHL draft and last season had 18 goals and 52 points in 62 games to be named a Calder Trophy finalist.
Eberle’s finest moments have come on the world junior stage. In 2009, he scored with 5.4 seconds remaining in a semifinal clash with Russia to force overtime. Eberle then scored in the shootout as Canada won 6-5 en route to gold and finished with 13 tournament points.
A year later in the gold-medal game, Eberle scored twice with three minutes remaining to force overtime in an eventual 6-5 loss to the U.S. He finished with eight goals and 13 points.
“It was pretty much my coming-out party,” recalled Eberle. “The biggest thing for me was confidence. You play with the best players in Canada against the best in the world and when you dominate the tournament, it gives you the confidence that you can move up in hockey and really make the NHL.”
Which makes you wonder what The Big Three of Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle and Hall, along with defence-man Justin Schultz, can really learn at the AHL level. There was a collective no-show Friday in a 4-0 loss to the Abbotsford Heat to fall to 5-5-01 and all it takes is an NHL lockout settlement to quickly ship the quartet back to Edmonton.
If anything, being targeted by the opposition might be the toughest test because being lined up in the crosshairs has to cross the mind.
“A little bit,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “But in the NHL, teams match player against player and you just have to kind of roll with it and play through it. We’re on the brink of playing better. My faceoffs have definitely been better than last year (37.5 per cent) and I want to keep working on my defensive game. I’m not the most vocal guy, but I try to lead as much as I can.”