Ryan Nugent-Hopkins arrived in Edmonton in the fall of 2011 as a baby-faced teenager with great promise. Now in his eighth NHL season, the still baby-faced Nugent-Hopkins is the longest-serving player on the roster and an extremely valuable member of the Edmonton Oilers. He has 14 goals and 38 points in 42 games this season, which puts him on-pace to surpass his career high of 56 points in 2013-14 and 2014-15.
The Burnaby, British Columbia native has an astute hockey mind, excellent poise with the puck and always seems to find time and space to use his fantastic creativity in the offensive zone. He also takes a lot of pride in his defensive game and likes the challenge of going up against the opposition’s best players each night he comes to the rink.
Still just 25, Nugent-Hopkins will play in his 500th career NHL game on Tuesday against the San Jose Sharks. Per StatsCentre (TSN’s official statistics account on Twitter), he ranks seventh in Oilers history in points before a player’s 26th birthday with 351. He trails only Wayne Gretzky (1,459), Paul Coffey (669), Jari Kurri (644), Mark Messier (595), Glenn Anderson (544) and Craig Simpson (365). While his best days in the NHL are almost surely ahead him, here’s a look back at Nugent-Hopkins’ five most memorable moments with the Oilers.
It’s a day every player dreams of. Hearing your name called, crossing the stage and putting on an NHL jersey for the first time. In June 2011, there wasn’t a consensus number one pick in the draft. Although many scouts had Nugent-Hopkins at the top of their lists, Swedes Adam Larsson and Gabriel Landeskog were also strong contenders to be the prized pick. However, the Oilers hadn’t had a legitimate top-line centre since Doug Weight was traded to the St. Louis Blues a decade earlier, and made Nugent-Hopkins their first selection.
“It’s amazing [to be picked by the Oilers],” Nugent-Hopkins told TSN’s James Duthie after being drafted. “It’s a dream come true to be honest. I always watched Edmonton this year, the past couple years actually, and it’s just amazing I was picked there.” Eight years later, Nugent-Hopkins ranks fifth in career goals (133), fourth in career assists (218), fourth in career points (351) and third in career games played (499) among 2011 draftees.
Clutch First Goal
The Oilers opened the 2011-12 season at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Although Sidney Crosby was in the building, every Oilers fan focused on two players, both named Ryan, that night. Ryan Smyth played his first game back with the Oilers after he was dealt to the New York Islanders prior to the 2007 Trade Deadline, while Nugent-Hopkins made his highly-anticipated NHL debut.
Although the Penguins had far more talent on their roster, the Oilers hung with them all night and only trailed 1-0 late in the third period. Then, with just under five minutes to play, Taylor Hall tried a between-the-legs backhand pass to Ales Hemsky from the corner that didn’t connect.
However, the puck landed right on the stick of Nugent-Hopkins, who was about to draw a penalty after Craig Adams slashed his stick. However, he stayed with the play and shoveled the puck past Brent Johnson for his first career NHL goal and to tie the game 1-1. The Oilers went on to win 2-1 in a shootout in their home opener.
Hats off for Nuge
Less than a week after scoring his first NHL goal, Nugent-Hopkins got another milestone out of the way. The Oilers were hosting the defending Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks, the team he grew up cheering for. After going down 1-0 early, the newly formed Kid Line tied the game up after a few minutes as Hall and Jordan Eberle set up Nugent-Hopkins for a power-play marker. Before the end of the opening frame, he scored his second of the night on a defection to put the Oilers in front 2-1.
Then, less than four minutes into the second period, he struck again on the power play to complete the hat trick. He became the second-youngest player in NHL history to score a hat trick (18 years, 186 days), behind only Jordan Staal (18 years, 153 days). Unfortunately, the Oilers lost that game 4-3, but was still a night to remember for Nugent-Hopkins.
Throwing Fists in Vancouver
Nugent-Hopkins has always been known for his exceptional puck skills, but on Oct. 11, 2014, he used his hands in a different way. With the Oilers leading 4-3 in the third period against the Canucks in Vancouver, he skated the puck up ice on a shorthanded rush. As he curled back toward the boards on the penalty kill, Dan Hamhuis knocked him to the ice with a hard hit. Nugent-Hopkins, who clearly didn’t like the hit, quickly got to his feet and confronted Hamhuis.
After some pushing and shoving, the two decided to drop the gloves in Nugent-Hopkins’ first fight in the NHL. After throwing a couple rights that hit the side of his helmet, Nugent-Hopkins connected with a two quick left jabs. He had the advantage in the punch count (14-10 by my count), but Hamhuis threw the bigger bombs and ultimately scored the take down. Although Nugent-Hopkins missed the next two games with an undisclosed injury as a result of the fight, he showed the rest of the league he wasn’t afraid to stand up for himself.
Despite missing 20 games with a sprained shoulder, Nugent-Hopkins’ rookie campaign was a special one. His best performance was in November against the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks who had just won the Stanley Cup a couple years earlier. Although the Blackhawks had one of the strongest rosters in the league and the Oilers were the league’s worst club, they always played well against the superior Blackhawks during this era.
The Oilers rocketed out of the gate with five goals in the first period, including two assists from Nugent-Hopkins. Then, he added two more helpers as the Oilers extended their lead to 8-2 after 40 minutes. With the game put away, he recorded his fifth assist of the game to give Hall his hat trick goal and the Oilers a 9-2 victory.
Nugent-Hopkins had the third-most assists ever recorded in a game by a rookie behind only Wayne Gretzky (7) and Gary Suter (6). Now that he’s seeing power play time with the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, another five-point night doesn’t seem like a huge reach for Nugent-Hopkins.
Eric Friesen is a freelance sports broadcaster and journalist in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Eric has diplomas in Broadcasting from Mount Royal University in Calgary and Sports Journalism from Centennial College in Toronto. A lifelong hockey fan, Eric has followed the Edmonton Oilers for more than 20 years. He cheers for the Oilers because of his hockey hero Wayne Gretzky, who played his more productive seasons in Oil Country.