Other then increased productivity throughout Canada, and the Northern United States, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins may be the only good thing that comes out of the current NHL Lockout. The Edmonton Oilers first-overall selection was named to Canada’s World Junior squad who will be competing in Ufa, Russia. In a perfect world, Nugent-Hopkins would be nearing the midway point of his sophomore NHL season; if you believe the hype he may be among the league’s top point scorers. But sadly, Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr (read as the Anti-Christ and the Devil) decided that they wanted to insure victory for Canada at the 2012-2013 World Junior Tournament.
While other NHL players are just now discovering the “escrow” is not a French culinary disk (I know, I was surprised too) RNH will be given an excellent career opportunity. Some would argue that the man they call the “Nuge” is too big for this tournament, that his year in the NHL makes him a man among boys. They wouldn’t necessarily be incorrect on that last point, yet on the first they would surely be wrong. This tournament could provide plenty of positives for both Nugent-Hopkins development as well as his confidence. The gap in ability between RNH and the rest of the U20 field will be what he will try to emulate during the prime of his NHL career.
On the other side of things, this is by far the most pressure that the young man will have ever faced. With the arguable exception of the brother of Malcolm Subban (who apparently always has to be prefaced as “PK’s brother”)/Canada’s starting goaltender, Nugent-Hopkins will be the face of this Canadian team. He will be covered extensively by Canadian media, depending upon the state of the lockout it could get ridiculous. He is the headliner, and for good reason. But what if, for one reason or another, things go off the rails. What if Canada’s Gold medal drought continues? Then, RNH was amazing in the tournament or not, the Canadian press will go all Chris Simon on his reputation. This could see both his confidence, and development, stumble worse then Patrik Stefan en route to an empty net.
So why is the hype so big, what does Nugent-Hopkins bring to the table that is so special? Well for one, if he had not blown out his shoulder last season he would have been NHL rookie of the year, hands down. When was the last time a NHL rookie of the year got to play in the World Juniors the next year? Again, it is only because of the NHL lockout that this opportunity was presented. Nugent-Hopkins may be the best player to even play in the World Junior Championships. This is because anyone else with his talent would be playing in the NHL and would not have been available for selection. In 2004-2005 Canada had a World-Class roster, debatably the best ever, but they had no player who at that stage in their career was as good as the Nuge.
With this comes huge expectations, bigger then being selected first overall. But in the past the young Canadian has always proven that he can deal with expectations like a professional. Few would have considered him likely to stay with the Oilers last season, largely due to his frame and style of play. Yet he made it impossible for Edmonton to send him back to the WHL. The size division is not nearly as big at the U20 level, and this gives Nugent-Hopkins an advantage in the only disadvantage he had playing in the NHL. In terms of numbers, you can expect huge things from him. A player who was in a very comparable situation to RNH in 2004-2005 was Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins. During the tournament, Bergeron tallied 13 points. That is the bar that RNH will surely surpass, probably with around 20 points as the top line for Canada is by far the best in the tournament.
The only catch, and it must be mentioned, is that at any time the NHL lockout could end. Although it does not appear that a deal will be done in the foreseeable future, the mood can change as quickly as Gary Bettman moves his head when he is angry. There is no chance that the Oilers would allow one of, if not their best player to take off to Russia during a shortened season. Especially a shortened season that will benefit a young team like Edmonton. The entire dream of seeing Nugent-Hopkins end Canada’s golden drought could be over in a flash. It would certainly leave a huge void on the team.
Expectations will be unbelievably high for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins if he joins Canada in Ufa, but he knows that better then anyone. I would bet your money of RNH, his talent alone may be enough.