EDMONTON — Maybe this is where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was always meant to be.
Perhaps this No. 1 overall draft pick was never the “Number One” type at all, but instead a top-level, multifaceted No. 3.
The type of high-level player that good teams have in support of their superstars. Like an Ondrej Palat in Tampa, a David Krejci in Boston, or in a different era, a Craig Simpson on those Oilers teams of yore.
Perhaps Nugent-Hopkins’ name will never return to the top of the marquee the way it was a decade ago when he was selected at the top of his class ahead of names like Jonathan Huberdeau, Mark Scheifele, Gabriel Landeskog and Nikita Kucherov.
Today, at age 28, Nugent-Hopkins’ 487 points in 662 games ranks him sixth in scoring among 2011 draftees. He has become, like his hockey hero Pavel Datsyuk, a subtle, late-blooming skill player whose assets require many viewings to be fully appreciated.
“They’re valuable to a team because they play in all situations,” Oilers head coach Dave Tippett observed of players like Nugent-Hopkins. “A — they have the talent. The wherewithal to be a good player in the league. But B — they understand the different roles they have to switch to. Nuge, he can go centre or left wing. He’s a penalty killer, a power play guy. He can take faceoffs.
“He touches a lot of parts of the game. So as a coach, it gives you the flexibility to tinker with things. But it also gives you the reliability that you have a player who will adapt to those situations very well.”
Nugent-Hopkins is the blackberry note in a good Merlot. The pinch of paprika in a rich Czech goulash.
On the late-night highlights, where Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl own the end of the highlight, Nugent-Hopkins can only hope the editor goes back far enough to include the part where he stole a puck to keep a power play alive, made a slick one-touch pass to advance the attack, or used his high-level instincts to make the play that broke down the penalty kill, leading to a goal by someone else.
Pop quiz: Who led the NHL in assists prior to Friday’s action, with nine in six games?
Answer: The Oilers’ third best forward. Or fourth, give or take Zach Hyman. (We’d still put him third, but it’s a debate.)
“He’s been arguably one of our best players in his duration as an Oiler,” Zack Kassian said. “He does everything, right? He plays centre, he plays wing. He kills penalties, he’s on the power play. Guys like that, they don’t come around too often.
“We have Connor and Leon, two superstars. But I don’t think Nuge gets enough credit for, not only what he does on the ice, but off the ice as well. He’s a great person, and Edmonton is really lucky to have him for as long as they have.”
As Nugent-Hopkins comes home to Vancouver for a Hockey Night in Canada tilt against the Canucks on Saturday, he does so as a guy who recently signed an eight-year deal to remain with the team that drafted him for the rest of his career. He’s married now, and kids are likely to follow, ensconced in a nice neighborhood in Edmonton’s west end.
In a hockey world where Edmonton is listed on more “No Trade” lists than probably 25 other cities, “The Nuge” has a house and a home in Northern Alberta and never thought about going anywhere else.
“Like anybody, the more time you spend in the city …,” he began, an Edmonton-ism that us locals know well. “As a visiting team, you don’t see a whole lot of the city, it’s cold. … It’s hard for guys to see and experience the city. I’ve loved my 10 years in Edmonton, and two years in Red Deer. It feels like home for me.
“I take a lot of pride in being an Oiler. I know there were a lot of negotiations and whatnot. But my goal the whole time was to re-sign here.”
In his 11 seasons here, Nugent-Hopkins has endured seven head coaches. “If you count MacT for two weeks, it’s eight,” he chuckles of the time then-GM Craig MacTavish stepped behind the bench to go 0-3, before hiring Todd Nelson, and shortly thereafter Todd McLellan.
Over the years, Nugent-Hopkins has endured many losing seasons in Edmonton. But even the relentless lack of success hasn’t driven him to consider going elsewhere.
“As a young guy,” he said, “it’s hard to wrap your mind around the transition that teams go through. The older I got, I saw teams like Chicago, Colorado … Detroit was at the top of the league, and the further I went in my career they started to taper off. You learn that as you get older in the league.
“When you’re young and you’re losing, it’s tough. You don’t see an end to it. The longer I stayed here, the more I realized we could turn things around.”
Today, the Oilers appear to have gained traction finally. And Nugent-Hopkins, a horse owner, has the perfect steed for what he has endured in blue and orange.
It’s his best horse, and the story of his professional life.
His name? Infinite Patience.