EDMONTON — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the lone survivor. The last of the Mohicans.
There he was on a Tuesday night at Rogers Place against Arizona, the playoffs no less a distant mirage this February than they have been in all but one of his eight seasons as a pro, and he’s digging right to the final buzzer.
“I think he’s grown, even if he looks the same,” chuckled Sam Gagner, who has returned to Edmonton to re-join the man that the rosy-cheeked boy has become. “If he’s not the most underrated, he’s one of the most underrated players in the league.”
Gagner has gone off, watching Nugent-Hopkins from afar. He’s seen a centreman who hasn’t just leaned on the offence that got him drafted No. 1 overall in 2011, but also learned how to play the game away from the puck. A man who will be remembered as a poor man’s Pavel Datsyuk, or maybe one day Patrice Bergeron, and he does it all in a place where the playoff lights seldom shine.
“He’s played a lot of hard minutes, and he’s asked to sacrifice offence a lot,” Gagner has observed. “This year he’s having a really good year offensively… he just keeps coming to work, and doing his job.”
With the goalie pulled and just 11 ticks left on the clock Tuesday night, there was Nugent-Hopkins, deftly accepting a laser of a pass from Leon Draisaitl and rattling it past Arizona goalie Darcy Kuemper to force overtime. The Oilers would lose 3-2 in a shootout, their sixth straight loss at home and 11th in their past 12 games.
Nugent-Hopkins was part of the rebuild that featured Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. Was it the second rebuild here? Perhaps the third?
No matter, of all the things that have gone wrong over the years, the kid they picked out of the Burnaby Winter Club via the Red Deer Rebels has panned out. He doesn’t have the most points from that 2011 draft — Nikita Kucherov, a second-rounder, does — but Nugent-Hopkins has survived the years of losing to become an excellent defensive centre who chips in 20-25 goals. This season, a career year, he’ll approach 70 points.
On a night when Connor McDavid was a late scratch, Nugent-Hopkins was there ‘til the final buzzer, pounding away for another meaningless February point in Edmonton.
“I’m going to be stickin’ with it,” he said. “I’m going to keep doing this ‘til the end of the season. We’re going to keep working, and find our way back into the playoff (race). We know we have to string some together, obviously. We know that. But there’s not going to be any shortage of work ethic for the rest of the year.”
Behind McDavid and Draisaitl, the Oilers have a trio of centres you could win a Cup with. How they can be trolling last place in the west is a story for another day.
For now, we’ll take a hat off to Nugent-Hopkins, who at age 25 is the longest serving Oiler, about to embark on yet another rebuild this summer.
“He just keeps fighting,” said Gagner. “He’s just one of those guys who never complains, continues to do his job, and just gets better. He is very under appreciated.”
McDavid came up with the flu after a five-hour Oilers team autograph session at West Edmonton Mall on Monday, where thousands of incredibly loyal fans lined up for hours to get apparel signed, say hello, and unfortunately for McDavid, shake hands and breathe on their heroes.
Though holes are beginning to appear in the seats here in Edmonton, and after-market tickets in the lower bowl could be bought for as low as $40 Tuesday, the under served hockey fan in Edmonton still has an incredible level of loyalty.
Game after game — year after woebegone year — Nugent-Hopkins gives that fan an honest, highly skilled effort. And on a night when McDavid called in sick, Nugent-Hopkins just dug in and played that much harder.
“He’s our leader, on the ice, in the room,” Nugent-Hopkins said of McDavid. “When something like that happens that close to the game we need to step up. You’re not going to fill his shoes, but you could try to pick your game up.
“We have to take some positives out of this game, especially the third period.”
They can take one positive. Whatever problems need to be fixed around here, Nugent-Hopkins is far from one of them.
No. 93 is a keeper. A guy to build around.