He wouldn’t really be an Edmonton Oilers prospect if “purely precautionary” shoulder exam wasn’t part of the December itinerary.
But, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’s developmental curve hasn’t exactly been a smooth line since being picked first overall last season. He likely would have won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year had he not had to shut himself down for 20 games last season thanks to a couple of shoulder injuries.
And now he’ll probably play in the World Juniors as a 19-year old, the first Canadian *skater* chosen first overall to do so since Alexandre Daigle in 1994, who also got to get time off from his National Hockey League squad due to a lockout. Few players his calibre ever have to suffer a season at the AHL-level, but the option was available for him to play against pro-calibre players instead of junior-level ones like Daigle had to back in 1994 before the lockout resolved itself.
The next wrinkle in development will be an appearance at the 2012 World Juniors in Ufa, Russia. Nugent-Hopkins didn’t get the chance to go last season thanks to his NHL-commitments, and while Team Canada is usually pretty good about sending at least one underage player to the tournament—Taylor Hall, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos—in Nugent-Hopkins’ year, Canada sent Sean Couturier to Buffalo and Nugent-Hopkins stayed in Red Deer.
If his shoulder checks out, he’ll more than certainly get a spot on Canada’s roster that’s lacking in elite forward depth, particularly out West. (The selection camp roster will be named about 30 minutes after this post is published, but only a couple of forwards from Western Canada are expected to make the team. That’s a defenceman-heavy league, and Canada’s biggest strength is on its back end. Even if the lockout weren’t going on, Canada would have a lot of talent to draw from at that position, and after the Subway Super Series, head coach Steve Spott suggested there were 15 guys in the mix, all legitimate NHL prospects.)
Hockey Prospectus prospect guru Corey Pronman has been of the belief that Nugent-Hopkins, as an NHLer, doesn’t get any development gain in the World Juniors as a result of unloading five points a game, as part of a line that will probably drop ten on Team Slovakia in their second game.
Not saying RNH going to WJC is a bad idea, I just dont see a potential development gain. Hes a quality NHLer, thats not his place to learn.
— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) November 23, 2012
Another smart person, Bruce McCurdy out of Edmonton, has argued that Nugent-Hopkins should not play in the tournament not because of the competition he’d face, but that it’s more beneficial to the Oilers to have him play continuously as a member of the “big four” with the Barons:
I’m not sure one can make quite the same claim in the case of RNH. In Oklahoma City he is a key member of a core cluster of talent, a group which is growing together even as this damned lockout stretches on until the thirteenth of Forever. It’s a rare opportunity that has been afforded him and his mates. From the perspective of the Oilers organization it very well might make more sense that the Nuge work on chemistry with Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall than, say, Jonathan Huberdeau and Ty Rattie; or with Justin Schultz than Morgan Rielly.
My core philosophy on that score remains “Grow the Cluster”, keeping the the key pieces in place and playing together as much as possible. That viewpoint remains valid in the current instance, given the unique situation of having at least four cluster members in OKC right now. However, a key distinction is it’s just for a month, not the entire rest of the season as was the decision after his ninth game last October. And a Team Canada gig is not so much a demotion as being seconded for the greater good. Given that one of my other core philosophies is “Go Canada!”, I’m torn.
That last line really does resonate, and I think in the interest of Canada, who have gone three years without a gold medal at the annual tournament, several people are turning a blind eye to what the break up in routine would do for Nugent-Hopkins’ development.
Is there any benefit to Nugent-Hopkins from a growth perspective? Probably not. He’ll play against much worse competition, not too many people who suit up for this tournament are pro players. While he says he’d like to play in the tournament and got the blessing from the Oilers’ organization, it’s almost a guarantee that if the Oilers didn’t allow him to go over to Russia if they were worried about his shoulder, or wanted him to continue with Oklahoma City, he would have said “I’m just happy to be where I am, obviously, I’ll follow the boys and I’ll be cheering for them, but I’m pleased to have the opportunity to play where I am in Oklahoma City and my focus has always been here.”
Still, it’s only a couple of weeks, and the break-up will be beneficial to Oilers’ fans, who will get to see one of their future stars playing in high-definition rather than on the crappy AHL video feed that’s been getting some very bad reviews. Another Edmonton smart dude in Jonathan Willis has latched onto the “Go Canada” mantra, but also relishes the chance to watch Nugent-Hopkins dominate against players who aren’t pro-ready just yet:
It’s a nice gesture of reciprocity, given that Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle and Hall are all playing in Oklahoma instead of Zurich (or similar). It’s also a nod to those fans who haven’t been watching the kids play via the AHL’s miserable video feed. Finally: I don’t buy arguments either way that this is going to have a big impact on Nugent-Hopkins’ development. I seriously doubt he’s going to “learn to win” by beating the pants off a bunch of 17-year old Slovakians on a stacked Canadian team. He’s also not going to be damaged by skipping out on AHL hockey for a few weeks. What he is going to do is get a chance to play in a starring role for Canada in one of the most exciting tournaments in hockey, and it is his very last chance to do so. It will be fun for him to play, fun for the rest of us to watch, and that’s reason enough for it to be a good decision.
This is all assuming the shoulder checks in at 100%. Frankly, I don’t know why the Oilers would risk general wear-and-tear on a bum shoulder throughout the first two months of this season when there’s no NHL hockey. The only concern about Nugent-Hopkins’ rookie season I had was his health, and you just know that if he goes to play for Team Lunchbucket in Ufa he’ll be expected to throw his small-even-for-junior frame at some 6’10″ German guy who probably has his skates on the wrong feet.