Nugent-Hopkins headed to Oil Country

The Oilers confirmed the near-obvious Friday night, selecting slick, playmaking centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels first overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

The Oilers confirmed the near-obvious Friday night, selecting slick, playmaking centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels first overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

That selection came amid considerable speculation the Oilers had reacquired popular left winger Ryan Smyth from the Los Angeles Kings for winger Gilbert Brule and a draft pick. Oilers GM Steve Tambellini told TSN the deal was not yet confirmed.

Nugent-Hopkins, a native of Burnaby, B.C., was congratulated on the stage at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., by Oilers owner Daryl Katz, GM Steve Tambellini and winger Taylor Hall, the Oilers first overall pick one year ago.

It was the first time the same team selected first overall two years in a row since 1995-96, when the Ottawa Senators took defenceman Bryan Berard and Chris Phillips.

“It’s amazing, it’s a dream come true, to be honest,” Nugent-Hopkins told TSN. “I always watched Edmonton this year, the past couple of years, actually and it’s just amazing that I got picked there.”

Asked to envision playing on the same line with Hall, Nugent-Hopkins said: “That would definitely be awesome. I met Taylor earlier in the day and it was great just to finally meet him.

“It feels great right now.”

Thrilled cheers erupted at Hudson’s Bar on Whyte Avenue with the announcement. Though the pick lacked the suspense of last year, the bar was still silent in the moment before Nugent-Hopkins was picked.

Duncan Fraser and Angus Sutherland drove down from Grande Prairie to witness the draft among Edmontonians.

“This is an Oilers party, which makes it a great atmosphere,” Fraser said. “We haven’t had a lot to celebrate since 2006.”

Longtime fan Greg Steele said the draft is a nice reward for futility, but he wants the wins. “I’ve been hanging on for 20 years, I’ve been told to wait and now I want to see contenders.”

At six-feet and 174 pounds, depending on how much he has eaten that day, the 18-year-old Nugent-Hopkins is a slender reed, but a gifted centreman, who scored 31 goals and added 75 assists for 106 points for the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels this season.

His on-ice vision and playmaking creativity have drawn comparisons to players like Detroit wizard Pavel Datsyuk. Part of the You-Tube generation, Nugent-Hopkins has said he drew inspiration watching clips of the late Maurice (Rocket) Richard whose passion for the game made a huge impression on him.

Tambellini said there is no urgency for Nugent-Hopkins to play in the NHL immediately. So, it is likely, perhaps probable, that he will have play one more year in Red Deer, where he can build up his body and dominate the WHL.

As well, barring injury or a stunning downturn in his play, Nugent-Hopkins could be a key member of Canada’s National Junior team at the World Junior Hockey Championship, to be held in Edmonton and Calgary.

The Oilers also hold the 19th selection, which they received from the Los Angeles Kings when they traded winger Dustin Penner at the March trade deadline, but were expected to try to make a deal to improve that draft position.

- John MacKinnon, The Edmonton Journal

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