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|Through Dec. 18, the 18-year-old Nugent-Hopkins was tied for an NHL-leading 16 power-play points.|
This story appears in the Jan. 9, 2012 NEXT issue of ESPN The Magazine.
AROUND THIS TIME LAST YEAR, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was still feeling the sting of being cut by Team Canada before the annual world junior hockey (under-20) championship. Too young, his critics said, and too frail. At that point, the 17-year-old had scored only eight goals in 31 games for his junior team, the Red Deer Rebels, and his NHL draft stock was dropping.
As it turned out, the setback awakened his game. "I went back to my junior team disappointed -- and a little pissed off," the center says. He finished the season in Red Deer with 31 goals and 75 assists, and Edmonton made Nugent-Hopkins the first overall pick in June.
He had a hat trick against me, so I think he's pretty good. He looks like the type of player who has the full package as far as vision, being a playmaker and putting the puck in the net. When you have that combo, it's pretty dangerous. I'm a little bit upset that he's in our division.” -- Roberto Luongo, NEXT class of 2000
Now the kid alternately known as Nuge, Hoppy or RNH is leading the resurgent Oilers, with 33 points in his first 32 NHL games. His teammates extol the rookie's hockey IQ -- he rarely rushes plays and is the Oilers' most trusted weapon on the power play. Ironically, Nugent-Hopkins' rail-thin frame -- even after bulking up this off-season, the 6'1" center is still just 175 pounds -- is one of the biggest reasons he's so difficult to stop. "He's like Gumby," says Canucks defenseman Keith Ballard. "You think you have him lined up, and he just kind of wiggles his body around you."
An elusive, skinny lefthanded playmaker taking Edmonton by storm? Comparisons to Wayne Gretzky seem inevitable, but Nugent-Hopkins' coach in Red Deer sees a different parallel. "I played with Pavel Datsyuk," says Jesse Wallin, referring to the Red Wings' three-time All-Star. "That's really who Hoppy reminds me of. He's so strong on his blades, and his ability to avoid checks is as good as anybody I've seen."
Still just 18, Nugent-Hopkins was eligible to play in this year's world juniors, co-hosted by Edmonton. This time, it was the player who said thanks but no thanks. "That's a franchise player," says Oilers coach Tom Renney. "We need him here."
Preferably just a little angry.
Doug McIntyre is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.