Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might lead the Edmonton Oilers in scoring, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be with the big club much longer.
Oilers coach Tom Renney says no decision has been made on whether to send the 18-year-old rookie back to junior.
“Have I told him he’s staying? No,” Renney said, according to the Associated Press.
Nugent-Hopkins has five goals and two assists in seven games — including a hat trick on Oct. 15 against the Canucks — while playing on a line with fellow phenoms Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle.
So why would the Oilers consider sending him back to the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League?
A couple of reasons:
First of all, the top pick in the 2011 draft has yet to fill out and there’s legitimate concern the 82-game NHL schedule will take too much of a physical toll. Basically the Oilers are worried he’ll break. Not get hurt. Break.
Secondly, the Oilers are still a ways from contending. Sending Nugent-Hopkins back to junior before he plays 10 games in the NHL means they won’t use up the first year of his entry-level contract. And if he plays fewer than 40 games, they won’t use up one of the seven years he has to play in the NHL before he becomes eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Chances are, Nugent-Hopkins isn’t going anywhere. The last first overall pick who didn’t play in the NHL straight away was defenseman Erik Johnson (drafted in 2006). Since then, it’s been Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and Taylor Hall. Plus all the other elite 18-year-olds that have stuck around and been stars, including Drew Doughty, Jeff Skinner and Matt Duchene.
“He’s a point-a-game player,” Hall said of Nugent-Hopkins. “He’s got five goals. It’s pretty hard to say that’s not NHL caliber.
“He was brought in to produce offense, and he’s done that in spades. That’s what he wanted to do. I’ve said all along that if he came in and did what he did best, and he’s even done more than that, he’d be a capable NHL player this year.”