“I don’t think he’s NHL-ready,” independent hockey scout Shane Malloy said. “It’s a big jump from playing with boys to playing with men. I think pushing him through will be extremely risky, based on his size and lack of strength. And that’s nothing disparaging about him. That’s just where he currently is with his physical development. It doesn’t mean it’s going to hinder what he’s going to do later in his career.”
That’s taken from a National Post story by Michael Traikos the day after the Edmonton Oilers made Ryan Nugent-Hopkins their #1 pick. Malloy, the author of The Art of Scouting, predicted that playing Nugent-Hopkins for a full year as an 18-year old would be risky for the Oilers, and he appears to be right in retrospect.
Oddly enough, a lanky 18-year old, listed at a generous 175 on the official Oilers’ website, didn’t have the physical tools to succeed in the NHL at such a young age. No knock against the kid, he had an impressive campaign as a rookie, putting up 35 points (mostly of the powerplay variety) in 40 games. However, with two injuries to the same shoulder this season, it may be time to shut Nugent-Hopkins down for the season and preserve him for future campaigns.
Nick Kypreos was the first major media persona to suggest it, and I’m thinking the same way. Who knows about the Oilers, but after missing 13 games in January and re-injuring the same shoulder against the Toronto Maple Leafs last week in a collision with Mike Brown, it may be time for the Oilers to cut their losses. They won’t make the playoffs this season and are hard-pressed to fight their way out of a lottery spot. Risking a third injury to Nugent-Hopkins this early in his career doesn’t help the Oilers out in the long run, which, from what I hear, is a future full of kittens parading around with the Stanley Cup while dancing on rainbows.
Which, of course, raises a whole bunch of interesting questions. The pertinent one being, if Nugent-Hopkins is indeed out for any length of time, who becomes the front-runner in the Calder Trophy race? The early betting favourite would obviously go to Adam Henrique in New Jersey, tied in the rookie points race, who is putting up a stellar season on the Devils’ top line with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Henrique sees good competition and starts more often than not in the defensive zone, making him a worthy two-way candidate, however the quality of his linemates can almost take away from the kind of player he is. We don’t exceptionally have a good read on him, but the team doesn’t give up much defensively with Henrique on the ice.
That said, while Henrique and Vancouver’s Cody Hodgson will get consideration in the Calder Trophy race due to their scoring proficiency, there are two more who will hopefully have a case for themselves thanks to stellar defensive work: Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier and Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog.
Couturier, who doesn’t quite have the numbers as the other rookies on the list, with just 10 goals and 10 assists, makes up for it by being a go-to defensive centreman for the club. Only Maxime Talbot takes more defensive zone draws than Couturier does for the Flyers, and Couturier has shown an ability to push the puck forward, generate shots, and avoid taking penalties, pretty much what you want out of a third line role player. He’s also second on the team, and second amongst league rookies, in penalty killing time among forwards, averaging 2:51 per game with a PK unit that allows just 40.8 shots against per 60 minutes (3rd in the NHL). Matt Read has done a similar job with slightly easier minutes on that team.
For Colorado, Landeskog would be my pick as Calder front-runner even with a healthy Nugent-Hopkins; the young Avalanche centre has lead the team in Corsi and quality of competition and has become an offensive force ever since Colorado head coach Joe Sacco started playing him more in the offensive end starting in around early December, playing at a 20-goal, 49-point per 82 game pace since December 1.
These factors aside, Landeskog also leads all rookies in shots (we all know how much I like looking at that statistic) and is probably the one who is the best at moving the puck forward into those shooting positions.
So even while Nugent-Hopkins waits on the sideline for medical clearance, I’m not sold he ought to be back in an Edmonton sweater for the remainder of the season. In the meantime, there is still an impressive crop of rookies to follow who have exceeded their expectations at the early stage of their National Hockey League careers.