He arrived a decade ago as “Hoppy,” a nickname bestowed upon Ryan Nugent-Hopkins by his junior teammates in Red Deer.
Skinny, pink-cheeked, and about 170 lbs. worth of teenager, he was the Edmonton Oilers’ second consecutive No. 1 overall pick. The centreman who, together with a 19-year-old Taylor Hall, would undoubtedly hang a few more Stanley Cup banners in the rafters here in Edmonton.
Ten seasons and one playoff appearance later, “Hoppy” became “Nuge,” which lately morphed into “Nuggy” (rhymes with buggy), thanks to teammate Leon Draisaitl.
“Nuggy is our quiet leader,” Draisaitl declared. “He’s not the loudest guy, maybe not the most vocal, but he just does everything right.”
Through it all, ol’ Nuggy moved over to left wing, and now at age 27 is a pending unrestricted free agent. My, how our boy has grown.
“In a lot of ways it’s flown by,” he said. “It’s crazy to think this is my 10th year now.”
The term “Swiss Army Knife” doesn’t really do Nugent-Hopkins justice. He’s high-end talent, but not too proud to do whatever job needs doing in Edmonton — which means GM Ken Holland would very likely need to acquire two players to fill Nugent-Hopkins’ shoes if he lets him walk.
A No. 1 pick is supposed to be the best forward on his team, but on a roster that includes Connor McDavid and Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins has nestled into his role as perhaps their most versatile forward, alongside Draisaitl. He is the winger to the stars, most often with McDavid, a smooth and subtle killer of penalties, and an integral component on a power play that has again cracked the NHL’s Top 10 is trending north in the North.
If you’d have told 18-year-old Ryan Nugent-Hopkins that this is what he would be a decade into his career, would he have believed you?
“Good question,” he mused. “I’m not the same player I was back then, but you’ve got to evolve your game. Find a way to be an effective player in this league. My evolution through the years has brought me to this point, where this is the game that can have the biggest positive impact for my team.
“I was just a young kid. A lot skinnier,” he said, looking back to draft day 2011. “Through the years I’ve learned a lot about how to be a pro, but back then? You just have to find your way in the league.”
So, who is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and what would the Edmonton Oilers be losing if they do not find a way to re-sign the player as his seven-year, $42 million dollar deal — just his second NHL contract — expires?
Well, as it turns out, he is a lot of things.
Head coach Dave Tippett: “He’s got strong hockey I.Q., good skill, but he uses it on both sides of the puck. Not just the offensive side. That makes him a player who guys want to play with. And as a coach, when you look down the bench for someone who can get a job done — whether it’s offensively or defensively — and he’s the guy you can put in both of those positions. Just a good player.”
Defenceman Darnell Nurse: “He’s one of the best two-way players in the league, one of those guys who is always going to make the right play. If there’s a breakdown, you can always count on him to be in position to help you out.
“As a leader, he’s not the loudest guy. But he sets such a good example each and every day for the guys on this team.”